Mel Gibson and Rory Culkin in ‘Signs’

Signs marked a turning point in Shyamalan’s career in many regards. The alien invasion drama/thriller was proudly headlined by Mel Gibson – talk about a different time – and sold as “M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.” Newsweek infamously dubbed him “The Next Spielberg,” while others compared his talent level to Alfred Hitchcock.

The film grossed $408 million worldwide and – upon its initial release – earned a respectable critical reception; though, nowadays, film buffs in general seem less generous towards Signs than when it originally hit theaters over a decade ago.

Personally, I was never a fan of Signs and – looking back from the present – I can now better explain my problems with the film. Signs marked the first time where Shyamlan’s (sorry to say) tin ear for dialogue started to become quite apparent to me. However, on a more significant level, this was the film where it became clear that Shyamalan’s work had started to become strictly allegorical – which explains why Signs is, nowadays, frequently mocked for its lapses in plot logic (to mention nothing of that infamous climactic plot twist).

On a final note: Signs was also the film where Shyamalan upgraded himself to an important supporting role – and, frankly, his performance speaks for itself (as far as explaining why that’s not a good idea:

The Village

Bryce Dallas Howard in ‘The Village’

If Signs was a practice run, then The Village was the true test of the bankability of Shyamalan’s name. Despite having some acclaimed acting talent attached to the project – Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver – this was a movie whose success really depended on the interest of the moviegoing public in seeing what new twisty tale the Sixth Sense director could come up with. Similarly, the casting of Ron Howard’s daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the lead role was not at all the focus of marketing.

You can’t really blame Shyamalan for the way The Village was sold and marketed – as a mysterious and scare-a-minute thriller – when it’s really a slower allegorical drama – punctuated by creepy moments – that taps into the post-9/11 mindset of fear about the world. However, despite some excellent filmmaking by Shyamalan, the movie does suffer from two issues:

  1. People fixated so much on guessing the Twilight Zone-style twist ending that having one at all simply did more harm than good. 
  2. Some of the kitschier elements (again, see the questionable dialogue) were beginning to weaken Shymalan’s thought-provoking and thematically-rich storytelling.

However, despite my own personal bias – I’ve long been a Village apologist – the fact remains: this is the film where the tide started to turn against Shyamalan. Sad to say, the director’s ego had begun to rear its ugly head, and that became all the more apparent on his followup to The Village (which was a solid box office success, taking in $256 million worldwide).

Lady in the Water

Bryce Dallas Howard in ‘Lady in the Water’

Shyamalan publicly broke ties with Touchstone Pictures due to creative differences over Lady in the Water (in short, Touchstone heads weren’t keen on the script). He instead decided to work with Warner Bros., which allowed him to have more artistic leeway – for better or (much) worse.

Sadly, that move was seemingly not for the best, as the final result – a quirky piece of contemporary American folklore – ends up being pulled down by its ponderous direction and a script full to the brim with under-cooked metaphors and ideas. (Basically, it’s a fairy tale presented as a sermon, not a sermon presented as a fairy tale.)

Watch the film’s prologue, for an illustration of that:

Sadly, Lady in the Water is an example of Shyamalan getting carried away with his own self-importance in many respects. That includes the aforementioned issues, in addition to a half-baked attempt to examine tradition and innovation in storytelling – with the inclusion of a film critic character (Bob Balaban), who lacks any shred of humanity or imagination and feels like a mean-spririted caricature (Anton Ego from Ratatouille, he ain’t.)

The part of the Lady in the Water story that better reflects Shyamalan’s arrogance getting the best of him was his decision to cast himself as an aspiring novelist – who (no joke) is writing a book that will change the world, but make him a martyr in the process. Clearly, critics weren’t the only ones left unimpressed, seeing how the film barely earned enough worldwide to cover its $70 million budget.

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