Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
One hates to beat a dead horse, but M. Night Shyamalan isn’t dead--not yet, not quite: people with more money than they know what to do with continue to fund his “films.” Usually, Chillers and Thrillers’ “Learning From the Masters” series analyzes successful stories, whether in print or on film, but one can learn from artistic failures, too, of course--it’s generally just less pleasurable.
I saw Sixth Sense, which I think is a good thriller, and Signs, which I wasn’t as enthused about, whether it is regarded as a science fiction film, a horror film, or a monstrous hybrid spawned by both. Then, I watched the last film by this alleged filmmaker that I ever plan to see, whether on the screen or courtesy of a DVD: The Happening, in which, despite its title, nothing happens--at least nothing believable or meaningful.
What’s wrong with Shyamalan’s films? They are predictable (there will always be a more-or-less unbelievable “twist” to the plot at the end of the story, a supposedly surprise ending that most moviegoers see coming from the beginning, especially now that they’ve learned, as it were, to expect the unexpected: the child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (in The Sixth Sense) is a ghost; security guard David Dunn (Unbreakable) is a superhero; water hurts aliens (Signs); the village (in The Village) is the laboratory, as it were, for a modern-day experiment; the lady trapped in the swimming pool returns to the Blue World (The Lady in Water); plants become serial--or is that cereal--killers (The Happening).
The films are superficial. There’s nothing to them. Their themes are sophomoric--or maybe just moronic.
The characters, like the plots and themes, also lack depth. They’re cardboard cutouts mouthing annoyingly unrealistic and, at times, exceedingly tedious dialogue--and dialogue about either inconsequential matters or incredible ones. Some of them are even Shyamalan himself, poorly disguised.
Character’s motivations are sometimes unconvincing. In The Happening, the protagonist regards his wife as virtually unfaithful to him because she had lunch with one of her male coworkers once. That was it. That was all. Lunch. Only in a Shyamalan film does a shared meal equal adultery. However, it is this shameful incident--lunch with a colleague of the opposite sex--that has caused a bit of a rift between the main character and his better half and it is the overcoming of this rift in reunited love (if such a relationship can involve true love) is part of the thematic glue that bonds--or is supposed to bond--these two characters (who receive a child by way of informal adoption, after the child’s parents are killed) together so that, having recovered their respect and affection for one another after living through a hellish encounter with America’s flora, they can become, once again, a family. The sentimentality level sinks to new lows, even for Shyamalan.
Although Shyamalan bills himself as an auteur, he is really an amateur. Unfortunately, his first couple of movies were lucky forays into the world of mass entertainment, and he gathered, from them, a fan base of young bloods who are, well, too easily entertained. For them, the trite themes, the stilted and tiresome dialogue, the feckless characters, the false dilemmas, and the inevitable plot twists are enough--and more than enough--as long as the master’s movies contain some cool special effects and a wink and a nod to the moviegoers’ geekiness.
Shyamalan makes films for himself. If he were a good filmmaker, that would be fine. The problem is that, in modern America, there are too many like him or too many who are likeminded. As long as there are chills and thrills, the rest of the movie doesn’t have to amount to much in the way of art. The filmmaker’s box office receipts have proven that dreck, like sex, sells, and if there’s one thing Shyamalan has in abundance it’s dreck.
So, what lessons can be gleaned from Shyamalan’s failures?
Unless you’re Dean Koontz, be clear as to your genre.
Make sure something actually happens during your story’s action--and something important, not trivial.
Unless you’re O. Henry, resist the desire to employ a “twist” or “surprise” ending. (Brush up on Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece, “The Philosophy of Composition” to learn how to write a successful ending to a story.)
Develop satisfying, significant, or even multivalent themes.
Create sympathetic and compelling characters.
Provide credible motivations for characters’ conflicts.
Write credible, if not sparkling, dialogue.
Do not insult your audience! Respect their intelligence and their commitment to the art of fiction, filmed or printed.