"Who would presume to know the intentions of another human being?" someone asks in Lady in the Water . Who indeed, but the most prosaic and literal-minded of critics? And it is to his critics that M. Night Shyamalan has really addressed both this question and his latest film¯critics who had begun to doubt the writer-director’s originality, his maturity, even his sanity. Unfortunately, Lady in the Water , a mess of a fractured fairy tale, may not do much to change their minds. Its self-consciousness, narrative convolutions, and strained bizarrerie ultimately deflate audience expectations, and render the story arbitrary and downright silly.
Shyamalan has been compared both to Steven Spielberg for his mass-entertainment faculties and to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling for his twist endings that frisson-fry your nerves, then balms them with a cathartic recognition. But there is also a loosely defined spirituality to Shyamalan’s movies¯from the communion of living and dead in his first blockbuster, The Sixth Sense ; to the providential care found even in the seemingly senseless in Signs ; to the supernatural powers conferred on a father to thwart evil and hold together his disintegrating family ( Unbreakable ). These films are fundamentally about faith¯not faith in a Judaeo-Christian sense, in a personal and sovereign God, but faith that you have a purpose and that you will never be at peace until you find that purpose. Faith also in Supernature as a power to be tapped into.
Myth also figures prominently in Shyamalan’s imaginings. The Village, one of his least popular and most critically savaged efforts, was about inventing a myth out of whole cloth as a form of social control. In Lady in the Water, a faux Eastern fairy tale comes to life in a housing complex, the Cove, when a "narf" (a kind of water nymph) named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) emerges from the community swimming pool running for her life from something called a scrunt, a combination wild boar/hedgehog dressed in what looks like Astroturf. Her protector is the Cove’s super¯played to a tee by schlemiel extraordinaire Paul Giamatti¯who has his own terrible backstory. Slowly, the heretofore disconnected denizens of the Cove find their roles in saving Story and getting her back home safely. Get it? Saving Story? If you don’t, there’s a sledgehammer with your name on it somewhere in this thing. This is Shyamalan overexplaining his purpose and his destiny as a filmmaker and storyteller. (He even appears in the film as a writer having trouble finishing his epic work until Story inspires him with a dark prophecy.)
Although nominally Hindu, Shyamalan attended Catholic and Episcopal schools before entering NYU’s film school. In The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, a chronicle of Shyamalan’s struggle to bring Lady to the screen, author Michael Bamberger revisits a Shyamalan quote: " I find it much more poignant to think of Jesus as a man, doing what he did purely on faith. . . . By making him a god, he can’t be an example to me. If you have every piece of magic available to you, and then you walk on water, what’s the big deal? I can’t emulate that. . . . If Jesus made a blind man see on faith alone, that’s awesome. If he went to the cross as an ordinary man with just unbelievable faith, how inspiring is that? I’d be in awe of that man.’"
Obviously, Christians would take issue with such misapprehensions as "making him a god" and "every piece of magic," as well as what it meant for Jesus to be fully god and fully man, which a grappling with kenosis would cure. In any event, the director’s eclectic taste in spiritual traditions, at least as far as Lady goes, results not in a multifaith mosaic but in plain old incoherence. While The Matrix could get away with its syncretism by means of CGI slight-of-hand and gravity-defying kickboxing, Lady offers no such diversions of eye-popping originality.
It does, however, offer a Shyamalan willing to take on his critics by making them part of his myth. Cove tenant Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban) is a film critic who thinks he knows his place in the narf/scrunt story, only to have the master storyteller turn left went he is supposed to turn right. (One also gets the impression Shyamalan had his former Disney producers in mind, as well.) The director makes plain that he will not be locked in the box critics have constructed for him. Strangely, he then proceeds to make a movie that pretty much proves a repeat of past themes. In fact, Shyamalan screened The Wizard of Oz for cast and crew during a break from filming, and one can see Oz as one layer of the Lady palimpsest¯what with the story of a frightened girl (er, narf) wanting just to get back home and creatures that bear a striking resemblance to flying monkeys. But the man behind the curtain is simply too angry¯or worn out¯to surprise or inspire, at least this time around.
According to Bamberger, Shyamalan calculated that a war-weary audience would be hungry for fantasy come summer 2006. As if to time-stamp this attempt at a timeless tale, news reports of the war in Iraq form the background track for several scenes. He may have miscalculated, not perhaps on the desire for escapist fare, but on Lady ‘s appeal: In its first weekend, it opened at number three, the weakest Shyamalan opening since 1999. Disney execs, initially skittish about making a film they just "didn’t get," may feel relieved that their lack of enthusiasm pushed Shyamalan into the arms of Warner Bros. But I hope I’m wrong: I hope that I’m one of those who were "too prosaic" to get Lady in the Water , that it goes on to make $200 million domestic, and that Shyamalan remains free to make his movies on his own terms. Overall, his is a voice of hope and courage and family-friendly fare. But given Lady ‘s confusions, vindication-level success is going to take more than just a leap of faith. It’s going to take one helluva good word of mouth.
Christians and the movies have come a long way since Carl McIntyre berated Billy Graham for giving The Ten Commandments a positive review (see " Evangelicals and Others " in the February 2006 issue of First Things ). Now, almost fifty years later, there is a profusion of Christian websites dedicated to reviewing movies¯for example, Hollywood Jesus , Decent Films , and ChristianCinema.com , not to mention Crosswalk’s and Christianity Today ‘s respective movie channels.
After coming across an article entitled "How to Share Your Faith Using Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest " on the Christian Post site, I got to thinking about how to share your faith using other popular, even unconventional movie fare. Gattaca and Minority Report could spur discussions about determinism and free will. Sling Blade and The Apostle are rich illustrations of the hiddenness of God and radical Christian notions of good and evil. The Hustler and Casablanca are naturals for exploring the nature of personal sacrifice. Airplane! and The Naked Gun portray the absurdity of a purely materialist vision of the universe and man’s place in it. (Although that Priscilla Presley and OJ Simpson both had movie careers could provide an argument for mere randomness.) And, of course, Police Academy 7 is an obvious, if discursive, apologetic for the annihilation of the Midianites.
Among the roughly 657 trailers previewed before the showing of Lady in the Water:
The Children of Men, a film adaptation of P.D. James’ novel set in 2021, a time in world history when all women are infertile and human extinction is a mere 50 years away. Earth’s only hope is a mysteriously (miraculously?) pregnant new Eve, whom a couple of ex-revolutionaries hope to protect by transporting her to The Human Project, a Noahic refuge where the best and the brightest are pooled to rethink, you guessed it, the human project. Set to open September 29.
Then there’s The Reaping , starring Hilary Swank. The Ten Plagues visited upon Egypt come to Louisiana, and the locus of evil is Dakota Fanning. (I know what you’re thinking: Not THAT tired premise again . . . ) Swank plays a Christian who’s lost her faith and is determined to explain the locusts, river of blood, etc., in purely materialistic terms. Given the film’s tag line¯"Evil has a savior"¯I believe she fails in that enterprise. Set to open November 8.
Just when you thought Hollywood didn’t get the Christian audience, we’re delivered up a resurrected Superman, divine retribution, the perils of a depopulated West, the healing power of faith, providence¯it’s just a shame so many of these movies fail, or at the very least have the odor of failure upon them.
One last trailer, and slightly off-topic: "To Boldly Go Where Everybody and His Uncle Have Gone Before . . . " J.J. Abrams of Alias and MI:3 fame will not only produce the next Star Trek movie¯he will direct and co-write it . Apparently it’s a prequel featuring a young Kirk and Spock training at Starfleet Academy. One wonders if an explanation will be given for why grammar was not part of the curriculum, and why in the future every planet looks exactly alike and is apparently made of polystyrene. Rumors that Kirk and Spock will be played by Brad Pitt and Vince Vaughn are not to be credited.
In addition to which :
A lively exchange between Alan Jacobs and his critics over the dismissal of a Catholic professor from Wheaton College; Thomas Guarino and R.R. Reno weigh the merits of analytical philosophy to Catholic theology; and George Weigel revisits the moral status of the Iraq War. It’s all in the correspondence section of the August/September edition of First Things . Subscribe today .