a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, July 21, 2006

"Lady in the Water" Has Problems (No Spoilers)

To establish something right up front: I think M. Night Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker.

Visually, his films look great. He has a feel for getting good performances out of his actors. He also has a good feel for bringing little bits of humor to otherwise-serious stories. And each of his movies are rife with solid, well-crafted sequences.

They are also the kind of stories that I like to tell. Ordinary people, trying to deal with a fantasy twist that is thrown at them.

The problem with M. Night is that he is only as good as his screenplays. And as a screenwriter, quite frankly, he's getting worse.

The famous story about M. Night is that it took him 10 drafts of The Sixth Sense to get it right, and it wasn't until the 5th draft that he came up with the twist involving Bruce Willis' character.

Unfortunately, with The Sixth Sense came fame, and with fame came the ability to not need to do ten drafts any more, if he didn't want to. So every movie he does, the scripts just get shakier and shakier.

Unbreakable? Maybe he did 4 drafts. The script held together pretty well, until a third act that didn't go much of anywhere, and one of the worst actual endings I've ever seen.

Signs? Feels like a 3-drafter. Some good bits here (love Joaquin Phoenix freaking out to the bad footage of the alien on TV), but the idea that you need a dying woman to pass along a message that you might want to hit an alien with a baseball bat is really rather eye-rolling.

The Village. A two-drafter, all the way. Potentially-interesting idea, poorly executed story-wise.

Lady In The Water? You guessed it. It feels like a first draft all the way.

It's not giving anything away at all to tell you that M. Night even opens the story up by pretty much telling you where it is going; literally, before we meet any actors, we learn of these humanoid sea creatures, and the knowledge that they need to pass on to people, and that there these wolf creatures want to kill them.

Pretty basic set-up, given to you right up front.

Still, so much early exposition (complete with rudimentary drawings) is an early sign of this script's major, major problem -- M. Night's story here is needlessly overcomplicated.

Not only does he have way too much info that has to be established, but when he does get the lore and the rules laid out, they still don't make much sense.

The whole script just feels incredibly contrived, like he's making it up as he goes along, and it's frustrating as hell, because we want to like this movie.

Paul Giamatti is appealing (as always), the fairy tale feel adds some nice touches, the world of this apartment complex is well-drawn, and there are enough good ideas floating around here to show the solid movie that it could have been. Even M. Night, playing a supporting role, is actually decent as an actor.

(Despite how the commercials are selling this, however, it's not a horror movie. Or much of a thriller. And don't get me started on how incredibly ineffective the evil in this movie is, or the awful deus ex machina ending).

But this has to be one of the worst-executed plots that I've seen in a long time. M. Night seems to realize the problems, too; he works overtime trying to make the exposition entertaining, and tries to have fun with the idea of the characters trying to figure out the "rules" of the fantasy that they have found themselves dropped into.

But the rules don't really make any sense. The story feels slapped together, so much so that we are never satisfied by much of it, because it relies too much on cheats, and on pure contrivance, and on the characters being driven by a fear of creatures that never actually seem to attack much, or with much credible logic.

M. Night also drops in a truly awful subplot involving a character who is a movie critic, who over-analyzes the storyline as the film is going on. All of this reminding of formulaic storytelling just serves to further make one realize how badly manufactured this particular story is.

And I have no idea -- none -- why M. Night felt further inspired to name the female lead "Story".

A recent Entertainment Weekly excerpt (from a book coming out about M. Night's making this movie) details why Disney didn't make this film; Nina Jacobsen had a list of valid complaints about the script, and rather than address the gaping story flaws, M. Night just took it to Warner Brothers, who basically gave him his budget and let him make the movie he wanted to without giving them any of those pesky things called notes.

If you are a filmmaker, that's a dream scenario. Unfortunately, you still have to be able to pull it off. And M. Night simply doesn't. It's frustrating, because again the man has filmmaking skills.

But maybe it's time for him to direct someone else's script next time.


At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Terrific review, Scott. I never thought of looking at Shyamalan in terms of the diminishing amount of work he's put into each of his scripts, and consequently, how bad the results have become, but it's all there on the screen.

Have you ever thought of teaching a screenwriting course? Perhaps only as a side gig, in between picking up Academy Awards and managing the editorial content of this blog.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Alligator,

Thank you so much for writing about me. Just a few corrections to your article.

Unbreakable only required 3 drafts. Signs poured out of me in 2. The Village was captured in 1 (didn't even have to outline for that one).

And The Lady In The Water? You should have realized I didn't even have to put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. I've told this story so many times to my kids all I had to do was turn on the camera.

My next movie I'm won't even have to shoot. I'm planning to reach the audience through thought transfer.

Thanks again,
M. Night

PS. Love your blog, btw.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

By the way, anyone who does go to see this movie this weekend (and you should, just so you have this bad-storytelling touchstone that you can use in conversation), be ready for this --

For about a half hour, you might think I'm nuts.

For a little while, you are going to be pleasantly surprised. The movie is interesting, and it sort of hooks you.

Just beware.

My recommendation is to sneak into it, after seeing Monster House or Clerks II.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous bianca said...

With his filmmaking skills, I've always thought M. Night could make a really good action-adventure type movie. Like something Spielberg would have made in the '80s.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

geez you think that they might have learned something from the excesses of cimino, coppola and stone about giving blank checks to directors. . .it's so rare when you see the bulk of that money up on the screen

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Joshua James said...

M. Night got his end twist for Sixth Sense from a television show (I forgot the name, but it's on imdb) so I don't think it came through in the fifth draft, I think he had that from the beginning, via the show.

But I agree that he probably doesn't need to rewrite much anymore - though I felt SIGNS was much better than UNBREAKABLE (and VILLAGE, don't even get it).

At 2:40 PM, Anonymous kristen said...

I just saw it. Scott's review is actually erring on the kind side. It's pretty much a mess of a movie, way too "meta". And all the characters were speaking the plot in expository speeches, the kinds of temporary text that you put in as a placeholder and mean to replace with an interesting visual sequence or action later on.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger ScriptWeaver said...

Absolutely loved it. No joke.

At 6:37 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Good review Scott. I'm definitely going to see it. Most of the word around town is that it is bad, but two of my friends who generally have a bead on things I'd like saw it and loved it.

I often wonder where the divide is. What must a story provide to satiate us? I loved your blurb about Signs, but it is interesting to me because that would never occur to me, because it is of little importance to me as a viewer.

Lady was originally billed as a bedtime story. Since bedtime stories are mostly made up on the fly, wouldn't it be OK that a "bed time story" movie operated on the same level?

I think we have to acknowledge intent, but just because M. Night wanted to make a movie with the logic flaws and made up feel of a bed time story doesn't mean that it makes a good movie.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I have no problem with something feeling as if it was made up on the fly, if it fits the story. But here M. Night works too hard trying to make it work, but all of his devices just bring more attention to the fact that this is just poor storytelling.

All I can say is -- go see it, and then we'll talk :-)

(But the Princess Bride this isn't).

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truly amazingly bad...

It's funny never seen anything like this Shyamalan is a smart enough film maker to know he can't cruise on exposistion the whole so what does he to makes the majority of the plot center around the lead characters quest to get the information. If Giamatti (sp?) had just sat down with the old Korean woman and gotten the whole story upfront the movie would have been about twenty minutes long.

Also what kind Korean hispter girl is going to sneak out to a club and then spend her time standing outside discussing an obscure Korean bedtime story with the janitor in her apartment building? A Korean hispter girl in a really badly written movie.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

And "Stoy" is looking for a writer...

Wow, this stuff is deep!

Saw it last night, and I think it's a great idea to have a fairy tale enter into real life... but this film doesn't pull that off. Because I'd read so many bad reviews, the film wasn't as bad as I expected... but it did need a lot more drafts... and a lot more thought put into the fairy tale and the way it changes reality. Too bad they didn't use all of the characters in the complex.

- Bill

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous JG said...

I didn't like this first. But something occured to me that at least made it a little more interesting. This is about M. Night trying to get his story told. Which makes sense considering the simultaneous release of the book about the same thing.

Stay with me here.

Giamatti's character's main goal is the ultimate and literal release of Story. Looking at it from that perspective, there is a lot there. The guild(studio) seems to be important when the story seems to be dying, but they are ultimately useless without Giamatti. It goes on and on the more you think about it. The band(pr team)plans to facilitate the release with a party which is actually FOR the critic.

M night sees himself as Giamatti's character, ultimately responsible for the release and if he doesn't stay vigilant, it will be dragged off and 'go away'.

Interesting that he cast himself as the writer and that he seems to think what he's writing is going to save the world.

Is there anything to this, or am I just a conspiracy theorist?


At 10:16 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

He's definitely wrestling with what could have been some interesting themes and ideas here. But none of it really works.

At 12:37 AM, Blogger James said...

Very much, with you JG

"And I have no idea -- none -- why M. Night felt further inspired to name the female lead "Story"."

Because it's about the death of story :p.

And who better than to be the vessel to aide in the presevation of Story than... dun dun duh... M. Night.

His last few films have been very, VERY thinly veiled allegories. This one is mostly cooked up around the notion of the DVD market crippling the movie going expereince, to which M. Night is very much against.

Seriously... not only does he need to stop writing his own material, but for god's sake stop ACTING in them!

That and stop getting inspiration for movies from World of Warcraft.


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