It’s strange revisiting a film that affected me so much several years ago only to find that it has a much different effect on me today. When I first saw Lady in the Water, I was blind in my devotion to a filmmaker I was convinced would rival Alfred Hitchcock. I was also very confused at the time. My own ambitions were always in conflict with the weight of reality (who am I kidding—they still are, to a great extent). So a story about a being that could awaken a deeper sense of purpose in the people she met struck me at an opportune time. M. Night Shyamalan’s films generally deal with a greater reality just underneath the one we can see. They appeal to the notion that what we experience everyday is a mere shadow of life as it really is, or ought to be. Lady in the Water tries to tap that notion in a very peculiar, very misguided way. Many critics panned it. A few of my peers hated it. I, on the other hand, had really enjoyed it. When I first saw it, though, I had brought much more to it than Shyamalan had brought to me. Watching it again recently, the magic in the water didn’t go near as deep as it had before.
Lady in the Water relies on a simple fairy-tale mythology. The water people who live in the Blue World once communed with humanity, told them the future, inspired them to righteousness. But man moved further and further inland, away from the water (maybe in this world, there are no rivers or lakes). Man delved deeper into violence, and the wisdom of the water people was lost. But the water people are trying again, we’re told. Because something wonderful is about to happen.
Sorry. That’s another film. But we are told that something important is coming—the awakening of man. Right away, the film makes a promise it has to deliver. We have to see man awaken, and we do. But it’s at this point that I have to invoke Roger Ebert: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.”
How Shyamalan goes about telling this tale is an exercise in the ridiculous, and not in a good way. If it were in a good way, then there’d be a level of charm when a small child somehow pulls the secrets of the universe from the back of a cereal box. Instead there is no charm, just the naïve, innocent push to believe in it, even if it doesn’t make sense. See, Shyamalan really wants you to accept this film the way a small child accepts a bedtime story. Enjoying this movie utterly depends on the absolute suspension of disbelief. You have to accept the ridiculous as readily as a child. Otherwise, there’s little hope, and even then it’s pretty thin.
The fun of Shyamalan’s earlier films were the way he could spin an absorbing tale, and then pull the rug out and show you the whole thing from a different perspective. This film is all about pulling the rug out. We’re given a scenario—Story, a narf from the Blue World, has been sent to make contact with a person living in an apartment complex whose writing will change the world. All she has to do is look at him, and her job is done. That happens pretty early, and so the rest of the film is about getting her back home. That’s when the mythology intrudes and bogs everything down with rules and obstacles for no other reason than that the story needs rules and obstacles.
Cleveland Heep spends much of the film playing detective in some of the most unimaginative ways. When he meets Story, there’s the requisite awkwardness of having a lovely half-naked lady in his parlor. He’s drawn to her, wants to help her, so he goes in search of the person she’s supposed to contact and leaves her alone in his apartment. Here’s where the suspension of disbelief starts to falter. He could just as easily buy her some clothes, hand her a squirt bottle, and take her with him as he makes his rounds. It places her in direct action of the plot instead of leaving her on the peripheral. It creates greater conflict. Who’s the new girl, Mr. Heep? Oh her, she’s my new assistant. Oh, she’s cute, Mr. Heep—you’re going to have to keep an eye on her. Seriously, that was off the top of my head and it’s already more interesting than Cleveland’s Q and A with the residents.
Here’s another obstacle: for some reason, Story can’t talk about her world. Cleveland, and some of the new friends he acquires in the film, manage to siphon out the important details. Her appearance is pre-ordained, and there are people who would be drawn to live nearby who could help her out. They are the Symbolist, the Guardian, the Guild, and the Healer.
Now, this is a movie, so of course, it’s already surrounded us with a colorful cast of odd balls, any of whom might fall into one of these special roles. That’s not a criticism, that’s what it’s supposed to do. So far, Shyamalan’s following the screenwriter’s handbook page for page. He never really deviates, either. Like I said before, everything falls apart in how he goes about it.
First, a round-up of the supporting players:
Reggie, who works out only one side of his body
Mrs. Bell, who has a way with animals
Mr. Perez de la Torre and his five daughters
Young-Soon, a college student/party girl
Young Soon’s mom, who knows all about narfs
Mr. Drury, who has a thing for cross-word puzzles
Drury’s son, who has a thing for cereal boxes
A group of chain-smoking (unemployed?) philosophers
Vic, an aspiring writer
His sister, who’s there just to annoy him
Mr. and Mrs. Bubchick
Mr. Leeds, a quiet recluse
And Harry Farber, a film critic
To help him figure out who might fit the roles of those who can help Story, Cleveland goes to the film critic. Farber uses his knowledge of basic storytelling to help Cleveland ascertain the identities of Story’s helpers. At this point, Shyamalan starts to read us excerpts from the screenwriter’s handbook. The critic then becomes the butt of what I can only assume is supposed to be a dig a criticism itself. The Village was panned by critics, perhaps too harshly, and many took this as Shyamalan’s petty strike back. The movie offers very little to refute the idea. Before this point, Shyamalan had built his career on turning assumptions on their ears. Even with The Village‘s faults, his treatment of the Lucius-Noah-Ivy triangle is masterful. Lady in the Water lacks any such nuance or surprise. Surprises have to mean something. The film flips every assumption for no greater reason than that it can—they don’t mean anything at all. No one is changed, no presumption is challenged. Every surprise hinges on one goal: proving the critic got it all wrong.
What’s most frustrating about the whole thing is that Shyamalan actually has a legitimate gripe. There is a rift that exists between the critic and the audience. I don’t mean to imply that the critics that dump all over something as useless as the latest Transformers sequel don’t know what they’re talking about. The Transformers franchise is trash. That’s what it was made to be, and the critics that call it trash are doing their job. Food critics don’t praise Big Macs in the same breath as fillet minon, nor should they. But there is a level of criticism that does tend to get a little snobby. It may not appreciate a Big Mac, and that’s fine, but to apply the same derisiveness to, say, a burger at Red Robin, is missing the point. There has to be a give and take between a production of the absurd, and the critic sent to evaluate its merits. Some of the criticisms levied against Signs, for instance, weigh heavily against Shyamalan’s treatment of aliens. They ask, “If they were so vulnerable to water, why would they choose a planet 75% full of the stuff?” Sure, it’s a valid point, but parsing those details is like choosing between the lesser of who cares. Literature critics have repeatedly hammered The Lord of the Rings over the years, and people continue to read it over and over again. There comes a point where you have to wonder whether the critic has a point, or if he needs to bring his nose down a few notches. “The average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” Anton Ego said that in Ratatouille, and I believe him. (Thank you, Brad Bird.)
Had Shyamalan worked it a little differently, he could have made a similar case. Instead, he opts for the low road.
His actors pick up more slack than their share, Paul Giamatti in particular. When we first meet Cleveland Heep, he’s straight out the Shyamalan playbook. His backstory involves a personal tragedy, the kind that would have planted him in a seat next to those damaged souls that followed Edward Walker out to the woods to build a village in faux 1897. However weak the story may be, Giamatti lifts it all onto his shoulders and treats it as if it were real. Most of the others do as well. At least the players involved surrender to the notion that they have to accept this story as a child might. Kids know how to suspend their belief better than anyone. That’s part of the charm of this story, that it asks us to revisit that time when we really did believe in fairies, when we would clap our hands, convinced that it would alter the words on the page and bring Tinkerbell back to life. Shyamalan even has Cleveland prostrate himself in just such a way to earn more of the secrets of this strange world that’s been revealed to him. We would have come along too had a better spell been cast.
On the purely technical side, Shyamalan does not appear to know how to shoot a fantasy story. I write “appear” because I think he does know and just chooses not to do it. I’ll get into this a little when I look at The Last Airbender, but stories with a fantastical element have a look to them that goes beyond sword and sandal, wigs and set design. You place the camera differently to shoot a scene in something like The Lord of the Rings than you do shooting a movie like Ordinary People. Lady in the Water is shot to look ordinary. For the most part, that is—Shyamalan still shoots all the creepy elements to their fullest, scariest potential. The magical elements, however, all look mundane. There is one exception, which is why I don’t think Shyamalan is ignorant to the art. One of the final shots, in which a great eagle descends and picks up Story to take her home, is shot from under the pool, and it looks absolutely stunning.
It’s a shame the rest of the movie couldn’t aspire to the same eye for beauty.
Bryce Dallas Howard
M. Night Shyamalan
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan