Sunday, July 23, 2006

Evil Monkeys Abound

Review: Lady in the Water

First off, M. Night Shyamalan is a genius, because he recognizes that monkeys are evil.

Now that that's taken care of... almost every time you watch a movie, you know what you're getting yourself into. You thrust Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn into starring roles and you immediately know what kind of movie Wedding Crashers (see a future post) is going to be. Dead Man's Chest (also see that future post) is going to be exactly like Curse of the Black Pearl except later. With Lady in the Water, you're probably thinking "Okay, Shyamalan flick, a bit of creepiness, massive twist at the end." As it turns out, Lady in the Water has none of that. The movie is much less classic Shyamalan and much more Neil Gaiman.

If you haven't read anything by Gaiman, pick up American Gods right now and read it. Lady in the Water was less evocative of American Gods and more of Neverwhere, but either book will give you a much better idea what to expect out of Lady in the Water than any of Shyamalan's earlier films. In fact, I was thinking "holy crap, this is Neverwhere" through the entire movie. The comparison isn't entirely fair, especially since the book's mythology focuses on its setting, and the movie's mythology has much more to do with a sequence of events than where they take place. But once you take into account the "regular world guy" who gets visited in the regular world by the "magical mystical girl with special powers but who needs regular world guy to survive," which in turn slowly reveals the "fantastic subculture that affects humans but humans have no idea it exists"... the movie gets Gaiman-esque very quickly.

So that's the first caveat of Lady in the Water. If the premise of fantasy bothers or annoys you, don't bother seeing this movie. A corollary to the first caveat: Lady in the Water is indeed a fantasy movie; it is not scary in the least. (The movie does, however, make the same mistake that The Omen and so many other contemporary "horror" films do. That is, it confuses "startling" with "scary." A loud, unexpected noise that makes you jump is not scary.) But fantasy doesn't mean George RR Martin style sword and sorcery, in either Lady in the Water or Neil Gaiman's books' case. It means affinity toward the supernatural and a creative sense of mythology. And Lady in the Water certainly has both.

And really, that's the mark of a good fantasy setting: the permeability of the mtyhos into the setting. It's easy to say "I have set my story in quasi-medieval times, and there is magic." It's not much more difficult to add "My characters believe in this supernatural force that sometimes actually aids them." But to craft your characters and story so well that its gods seem like actual beings, its legends serve as actual sources of inspiration, and its included ethical debates are ones actually worth having in the real world, you've created something magnificent. This is why Final Fantasy X was such a powerful game: the Yevon mythos gave rise to a much deeper sense of realism to the setting. The mythology was so thorough that it became believable, and the player actually felt as if he were doing something important, sacred even, when he arrived at Zanarkand. And to bring things full circle, the Shyamalan-magnitude twist when the player finally reached Zanarkand was all the more incredible because the mythology was so ingrained. (Inversely, this is why Final Fantasy IX was such a dismal game, because you were playing through a story with no overarching mythology to lend it credence.) George RR Martin does this differently than Final Fantasy X, with central conflicts coming over the authenticity of some of the myths (which integrates nicely with his vague and blurry magic system), but he also does it well. And while not as masterfully as Final Fantasy X, as thoroughly as American Gods, or as intriguingly as something from Song of Ice and Fire, Lady in the Water holds its own when it comes to internal mythology.

This mythology starts simple, then grows more complex as the movie progresses. The audience is on a sort of "need to know" basis, which works just fine. We see pictographs at the start of the movie, giving a general outline of the legend, then a few specifics, then more precise details as they become important to the storyline. This works well because it's more the audience learning concepts than having a shovelful of mythology stuffed in its face at the beginning and being mandated to learn it all. Shyamalan uses the "story" device throughout the movie to acheive this effect. One of the recurring themes of the movie--painfully obvious by the fact that the titular Lady in the Water is a magical being named Story--is that there are a few universal "stories" that you have to learn to believe in. These may seem fantastic at first, but they have their validity. Shyamalan's characters aren't necessarily aware that they're in a movie, but there are plenty of self-aware references to plots and characterization (see below) that result in a sort of "translucent" fourth wall. As such, the mythology is able to be revealed gradually rather than with a shovel in the form of a few of the main characters discussing a bedtime story. I'm not sure if this is cheesy or clever--in truth, it's a little of both.

As the movie's best part comes from its mythology, its worst part comes from its attempts at commentary on the theater. I think Shyamalan speaks a bit too loudly as would befit his level of influence. Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the last millennium, didn't venture to delve this deep into the murky water (my apologies for the bad pun) of "criticizing a genre from within a work of that genre" until Hamlet, about eleven years into his career as a playwright. After writing a couple of dozen plays, he's entitled to make those witticisms about "pastorical-comical, historical-pastoral" actors and how the art of the theater is not in the state it should be. After one movie with huge critical and commercial achievement, and a few further releases with dubious success, Shyamalan is not entitled to the same. While critics' viewpoints can diverge wildly from popular opinion of a film, the truth is that many moviegoers are going to listen to what the critics have to say before deciding to see a film. Therefore, it's important as a director to make a film that appeals to critics, not because you necessarily care what the critical opinion is, but because there are potential audience members that do care what that opinion is.

So is it not intuitively obvious that making a film critic the least immediately likable character in the entire movie is shooting yourself in the cinematic foot? Let me say that I actually like this guy, because his deadpan reviews of vapid artiness are grounded in a strong dose of realism. The movie's best line comes when Cleveland (the main character) is discussing a romance film the local paper had him see. The Critic complains that the climactic moment of the movie, when the characters finally profess their love for each other, was during an unnecessarily cliched rainfall. Cleveland suggests that maybe this was a metaphor for cleansing and rebirth, and the Critic answers simply, "No. It's not." After this clever attack on critics who think themselves wonderfully insightful for pointing overused metaphors to the filmgoing proletariat, it's no wonder that critics hate Lady in the Water: they all got their feelings hurt. The movie's weakest scene, still furthering the negative sentiment many critics have toward this film, when both the fourth wall and the credibility of the entire story are at their most fragile, is when the Critic makes a few predictions regarding the plot of the story he realizes he is in immediately before his death. At this point, the rest of the theater laughed the most--because hey! This is obviously meant to be funny, and I'm clever enough to have picked up on that intention, so I'm going to laugh! A bit of pointless comic relief, coupled with the decidedly negative portrayal of a film critic, accomplish nothing for the complex mythology that Shyamalan has built to this point in the movie, and probably in fact weaken his message.

What was that message? Now comes the third caveat about Lady in the Water (the second being, if you're a critic, this movie will probably feel like a personal attack). The movie, while doing a lot to criticize other movies for using tired out devices (like the rainbound kiss), doesn't have that much to say when it comes down to originality of theme. "Find yourself," it urges, "be open to all sources of inspiration." Guess what? Hamlet beat Lady in the Water to the punch there too.

Other elements of what make a movie either good or bad didn't really stand out in this one, as Lady in the Water is a concept- and plot-centric film. The acting didn't strike me as particularly excellent or horrible: Paul Giamatti as Cleveland was believable and sympathetic but not revolutionary; Bryce Dallas Howard carried a character that even the most self-absorbed high school drama kid could have pulled off. The cinematography and special effects were present and neither good nor bad. I have strong praise for the music, which was on the whole melodic and a welcome departure from the atonal "mood music" that seems to plague suspense movies.

In the end, Lady in the Water is a movie I don't feel all that strongly about either way. I certainly don't think that the film merits the scathing reviews that critics have delighted in saddling it with. On the other hand, with such an extraordinary creation of a setting and an urban-fantasy set of legends to color that setting, more attention could have been paid to what all of that mythology actually means, what the statement behind the concept actually says. Ultimately, King Kong hid a complete lack of meaning behind a sense of epic scale, huge special effects, and an over-the-top aesthetic-heavy visual experience... no matter how good those visuals may have been. If Lady in the Water hides a complete lack of meaning behind a complex mythology, no matter how good that mythology is, is there really a difference? The movie is undoubtedly entertaining, and not at all bad, but with a little extra thought could have been actually good. In other words, it's probably worth seeing, as long as you understand the caveats, but don't expect either The Sixth Sense (what you might think this movie should be like) or Final Fantasy X (what this movie really should have been).

Currently listening: "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity," Gustav Holst (from The Planets)

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