"It was a dangerous movie to make. It's a movie that doesn't follow rules, the rules and conventions of storytelling. I know how to make movies, 'within the system,' you know what I mean?...and that can become constricting. I want to lean towards originality more, and originality requires breaking rules."
--M. Knight Shyamalan on Lady in the Water
If you look up the definition of hubris in the dictionary, “Casting yourself in a fantasy movie about storytelling as a brilliant writer whose at-first misunderstood work is predestined to later inspire great leaders and capture the hearts of millions,” probably wouldn't be the definition you'd see. But, you know, it should be; because it takes a whole heck of a lot of hubris do something that, like, hubris-y. So does making the main villain of your fantasy movie about storytelling a stiff movie critic (who's also a book critic, wouldn't you know it) who points out the movie's cliches as we, the audience, are watching them happen. I mean, no one would even think of doing that, right?
Well, M. Knight Shyamalan would, and the thing is, he almost kinda sorta gets away with it, though maybe not in the ways he was expecting. Shyamalan's movies, the ones he made in his heyday at least, are incredibly refreshing to watch in this endlessly disappointing, sequel/80's reboot-crazy Hollywood climate right now. Go back and watch The Village—first of all, because it's one of the most under-rated movies of the past decade or so and it's themes, cinematography, atmosphere, pacing and performances are worth revisiting—and be amazed at the fact that that movie, a quiet, contemplative thriller in which very little happens, was one of the most anticipated and top-selling films of the year. It's rare that we get works of pure imagination like that in Hollywood these days that become huge blockbusters. What was the last one? Source Code, maybe, and before that Inception. Looper? That's like three I can remember in the past three years. Not a lot. And yet Shyamalan had a string of four fantastic and original movies in a row that were not only huge box-office/DVD successes, but that also merited deeper examination and discussion, whether you loved them or hated them.
And then he made Lady in the Water. Critically, it was universally panned, and I don't remember talking to anyone that loved it when it came out. The marketing did not help, certainly; it was being sold as a dark fantasy horror movie, when it's actually basically a quirky indie flick with moments of broad humor, fourth-wall-breaking and whimsical fantasy that isn't really supposed to be scary at all. It's a weird movie, to be sure, and considering how much fun I had revisiting Signs, Unbreakable and The Village recently, it only felt fair to re-examine his (well, except for Airbender) most critically-maligned work.
Well, then. I can tell you right now that you're not going to like it now if you didn't like it before. The movie is just provocative, and needlessly so. And yet it's also one of the most interesting movies I've watched in a long time. I can't say I liked Lady in the Water, but few movies have irritated me in such interesting ways.
The plot, it should be said, makes no sense, though in the end, I would argue that it shouldn't. The gist of this movie is that a fairy tail creature comes into the life of this bumbling, faithless guy named Cleveland. Slowly but surely, she convinces him that she is in fact a fairy tail creature, and that the people in his apartment complex all have some sort of role to fulfill in the fairy tail of her life. So the formerly faithless man has to convince a bunch of people in his apartment complex to suspend their disbelieve and cynicism and just believe in something, gosh-darn it! That's the gist of it. What's nonsensical is the mythology of the fairy tail itself, which is so absolutely bananas that it sounds like Shyamalan was just spit-balling it as he went along. But, wait a minute, that's exactly what he did—see, this whole fairy tail is based off an entirely improvised bed-time story he told his children. I'll try to recap it. So there's a pool, see, and a nymph lives in there...except she didn't always live there because she came from wherever her home world is...except she doesn't remember it...or maybe the people from her home world don't remember her, or...well wait, she totally has like, a house hidden in that swimming pool, so maybe she has always lived there. Anyway she has to get back to her home world (or...I don't know, go there for the first time) because she's like a queen nymph or something, so her return would be super meaningful for her people...or, wait, if they don't remember her, why would it be meaningful? And how would they know she's a queen nymph? She just looks like a regular...anyway. There's some monkeys that protect her by throwing stuff at the evil grass-wolves that are trying to kill her—oh, I forgot to mention, there's some grass-wolves—and the guild—oh, right, there's a guild—has to do...I don't know. They have to create a world, or something? Not like, a universe. Just a world of people or...culture...or...I...I don't know. Wait, maybe the guild is part of the World and the World has to create the guild?
So yeah. Whether or not you think converting such a bed-time story into a movie is a good idea is up to personal taste. But I would argue that the fact that it's incomprehensibly bonkers is actually somewhat effective for the story that Shyamalan is trying to tell. In order for us to be “wowed” by the fact that all these wildly different people living in the same apartment complex would come together and suspend their disbelieve and just believe in something (gosh-darn it) in order to protect this fairy tail creature, perhaps it's best that the fairy tail itself is insane and seemingly logic-less. A faith-over-reason sort of thing.
This story, actually, kind of works for the first half of the movie. Shyamalan has an eye for the camera, first of all, and he acquaints us with the tenants of this shabby apartment complex (and of course our endlessly drab protagonist, Cleveland) with stark, compellingly minimalist camera work. The way he films it, we actually feel like we're taking a sneaky peek into these people's lives. We get shots of the tenants from outside their window, on their front porch peering through their slightly ajar door, from the opposite side of the pool that they're sitting on, and we only actually go into their apartments if they let Cleveland in as well. The characters themselves are over-the-top caricatures, archetypes, but it works, because makes the story feel more lighthearted and kid-friendly. To give these characters a ton of depth would be to sacrifice some of its charming innocence. If you're telling a bed time story to your kid, you wouldn't say, “Johnny hid behind his arrogance like a vampire shields its face from the light behind its cowl; ever since his wife had been stabbed to death in that K-Mart bathroom by the man she had been cheating on him with, Johnny had become a man divided. Half of him was sad for his loss; that was the half that wanted to hold her again; to say he was sorry; to kiss her passionately and make love to her fortnightly. The other half was livid; this was the half that wanted blood. And so every day since that fateful stabbing, Johnny had been pumping iron with one arm, leaving the other one limp and lifeless, symbolizing his internal division. Every day he did 500 reps with his right arm, and his right arm only. 2 reps for the amount of times his wife was stabbed, 10 reps for the amount of times he would have stabbed the man that killed her, and 488 reps for the amount of times he would have stabbed his wife had he found out earlier that she had been cheating on him.”
No, you'd say, “Johnny was a quirky guy who only lifted weights on one side of his body—so one side of his body was super strong! Now go to bed.” Which is to say, the secondary characters may lack depth, but their simplicity gives them a child-like charm.
While first half of the movie is compelling, you do quickly start to get the slightest impression that not everything is on the up-and-up. For one thing, if you haven't seen the movie, you're probably assuming that our titular Lady in the Water, the fairy tail creature, is the one that tells us the mythology of the fairy tail. No, no. See the Lady in the Water—whose name, I have somehow failed to mention, is Story. Say, do think you that might be symbolism?—doesn't say much of anything at all. If fact, she probably only has about a page of dialogue total. She doesn't say anything because, I think, she's bound by secrecy. For some reason. Because otherwise the Divine Lords of Fairy-Tailery would smite her. Or because it would be inconvenient for Shyamalan's script. So because of this arbitrary secrecy Cleveland has to enlist in other ways to find out Story's, ahem, story. The only thing Story will willingly say is that she's a water nymph. Well, wouldn't you just know it, there's an old Chinese woman who happens to be an expert on fairy-tails about water nymphs that lives in Cleveland's very apartment complex! Now, at this point, we're okay with this ridiculous coincidence, because the movie is well-shot, has clearly shown itself to have a good sense of humor, and because we get the sense that this is a story about destiny, and hey, maybe Cleveland and this Chinese woman are destined to meet, like LOST. Wouldn't that be something?
"...This movie--I basically said, 'I'm willing to break any rule. Anything that makes the movie safe and says, "okay, the good guy does this, then this happens; the audience needs this kind of thing at this point, at this part in the movie." I wanted to throw all that out and just do whatever the imagination wanted, you know? Just like, free form, and see if faith, just faith in storytelling could bring this to a thrilling conclusion."
But in the second half of the movie, things start to seriously drag, because here's the problem with this entire scenario: as charmingly silly as it is, it is a painfully lazy way of establishing the mythology. Having a character who happens to know every detail of the fairy-tail, and thus the plot of the movie, in the movie means that there's never really a sense of discovery about anything that happens; because any time something unexpected and potentially exciting happens, the characters can just ask the character who knows everything and find out what do no next. In the immortal words of Bob Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000, “This is a movie that states what it's going to do, and then does it.” Economic, but not terribly fun, is it? This is why Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland didn't work, either. As soon as Alice gets to Wonderland, and we think a bunch of cool fantastical things are going to happen, a boring creature shows her a scroll that says, “You must go here, and then there, and then get this sword, and use this sword to slay a dragon.” And then, sure enough, Alice goes here, and then there, and then gets a sword, and uses that sword to slay that dragon. If we know exactly what's going to happen, and when, and where and to whom, then what's the point of the movie?
“Ah,” you say, “but in Lady in the Water, we don't know which characters are going to end up being part of the World (an assembly of people who play an important part in rescuing the water nymph).” Except that we do, because mean-mister movie critic does know which characters need to be assembled. And he tells us. Continuing the movie on its path of telling us what it's going to do, and then executing it as planned. Now, he doesn't know exactly who they'll be, but because the movie that he's in is so cliché, he figures out what types of people they'll be just based on his knowledge of cliché stories. You're confused. Let me back up here.
Cleveland, realizing he needs to assemble a very specific group of people (a healer, a guild, a black person), and given the fact that this is, in fact, a bed-time story that he's trying to play out, he figures that he should ask the apartment's new resident, the movie critic, an expert on movies and books and archetypes. The cynical movie critic gives him very specific answers, and Cleveland trusts him implicitly. “AH,” you say, “but the movie critic is wrong! That's the whole point of the movie,” you say, “that movie critics are big buffoons who think they know everything, and that we shouldn't presume to know the outcome of the story just based on its beginning, or something!” But here's the thing: the movie critic is right. The movie's big twist, spoiler alert, is that Cleveland, based on the critic's advice, assembles the wrong group of people for the World. The moral here, kiddies, is that anybody who claims to know anything about movies or books is stupid and wrong. But Shyamalan's moral doesn't make sense, because in the end, the critic actually is right—the critic merely named the types of people Cleveland should look for, and even though Cleveland didn't pick the right people, the types of people that the critic mentioned do in fact still end up being the types of people that Cleveland should have been looking for in the first place. And if this paragraph is confusing and makes no sense to you, it's because this movie is confusing and makes no sense in the first place.
And in case you were wondering, yes, Shyamalan really does cast himself as a “brilliant” writer whose at-first misunderstood work is predestined to later inspire great leaders and capture the hearts of millions. Story tells his future, you see, and Story is never wrong. If the first problem with the movie is that it's too up-front about exactly what it's going to do, the second problem with the movie is that it's way too up-front about the fact that it's a movie. Which is to say that Shyamalan breaks the fourth wall a lot, and it gets to the point where we can't possibly buy into its premise, because Shyamalan clearly doesn't either. He keeps poking fun at the fact that the story is silly, poking fun at the fact that it's using horrible clichés, poking fun at the fact that there's way too much exposition, but he never stops doing those things. It'd be like if your little brother wet the bed every night on purpose, just for laughs. Even if he knows what he's doing is wrong, and even if he makes light of it by joking about it, that doesn't mean that he gets to keep doing it, simply because he recognizes that it's wrong. It's bad to wet the bed. People don't like it. You shouldn't do it. Shyamalan will also use characters to verbalize how the audience should feel and what certain things symbolize. At no point will you see something on screen and think something along the lines of, “I wonder if Shyamalan is trying to make a statement here about how critics are often cynical to the point where they can't appreciate a fun, lighthearted and imaginative story.” Oh, no. Shyamalan makes sure you're thinking exactly what he wants you to think at any given moment. This is not a movie whose themes are open for interpretation. The director/writer/co-star interprets it for you as you're watching the movie. The director's commentary could literally just be him reading off all the characters' lines.
But here's the thing with this movie: its flaws are so baffling that they really end up making it compulsively watchable. First of all, its heart really is in the right place. Shyamalan wanted to make a modern bed-time story that was imaginative and unique. He really did. He just also wanted to make grand statements about the magic of storytelling and the importance of a child-like acceptance of ridiculous fantasies. I know those desires don't have to be mutually exclusive, because the movie Hugo exists. Lady in the Water is torn between wanting to be a bed-time story and Shyamalan wanting to go on a webcam and just rant to the world about his feelings on storytelling. But you know what? That's kind of a fascinating mixture. I'm intrigued by movies where I learn more about the director than the story he or she is trying to tell. That's what makes The Room so utterly compelling. Lady in the Water isn't The Room, let that be clear: there's some great cinematography to be found here, some great performances, and a few good ideas; but there is an amazing sense that we're really discovering the man behind the camera, here. By the second half of the movie, we stop feeling like we're getting a sneaky peek into the lives of people living in an apartment complex, and start feeling like we're getting a sneaky, sometimes disconcerting peek into the darkest corners of Shyamalan's imagination.
What I'm trying to say is, this is a movie that should be studied in film school. There are several instances in the first half of the movie that are examples of genuinely great movie-making. And yet more often than not, it's an example of exactly how to not make a movie. You might walk away from it loving Shyamalan's sheer audacity, you might be walk away from it hating is arrogant use of cliches, but it is impossible to not have an opinion about it. It's an indifference-proof movie. And it's one worth watching.