There is no question: M. Night Shyamalan must be stopped. He has to be saved…from himself.
Back in the day, I used to read the Fametracker message boards, before the moderators and posters had an epic all-out internet battle, and the posters on there would always forget how to spell Shyamalan’s name. Thus, he became “Shamalamadingdong”, and to this day, I can’t really look at his name without thinking, “Okay, Ding Dong, whatever, lay your next bad movie on me. Bring it on, sucker!”
There’s really no way, I don’t think, to give an accurate review of this movie without explaining what’s going on, so I’ve cut it below to save those of you who actually care the horror of being spoiled.
Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a mild-mannered high school science teacher who has a rapidly disintegrating marriage. He’s trying to keep it together, but then the news comes that terrorists have attacked Central Park with an unknown bioweapon. His school is dismissed quickly and he teams up with fellow math teacher Julian to get the hell out of the city before anything bad can happen to them.
What follows is the old survival story, where Elliot attempts to understand, process, manage and identify the problem and save himself, his wife and others.
Now, here be the spoilers.
There’s no “twist” to this movie. Mr. Ding Dong sets it up very early on as to what the cause of all this commotion is, and Wahlberg’s character systematically feels it out into a working theory of sorts. The source of all the deaths is plants. Renegade plants have decided to exterminate human beings and are doing so by releasing an airborne toxin that causes people to kill themselves with whatever they can find close by.
It’s a premise that hits close to home, given the current state of the environment, but one that feels a little absurdist, and keeps you distant from the film. (Part of this is not the story and the way Ding Dong shoots it, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
The cinematography’s good, but the movie’s just so…dull. I can see why Shyamalan made this as a rated R film. Without the disgusting death scenes, there’s nothing to keep the viewer’s interest. I think Shyamalan should be called out here; if the “torture porn” directors (I hate that term, but it’s so unviersal now, I have no other term for it) get called out for using human death to sell films, then M. Night Shyamalan should have a finger pointed his way too. A lot of screentime is devoted to unnecessary, explicit deaths – such as one man, who throws himself into the lion cage at the zoo and is devoured limb by limb. There’s also a couple of scenes where the afflicted persons play a game of round-robin with a gun, where one person commits suicide with the gun, then the next picks it up and so on and so forth. The minute I saw the closeups of the dead, I knew exactly what Shyamalan was trying to do – he’s not trying to do anything but titillate the viewer with violence, especially when you see unnecessary bullet holes in people’s heads. (Usually people don’t shoot themselves square in the forehead, Ding Dong. Perhaps if you had thought about it, you would have realized logistically that doesn’t make sense, as morbid as that sounds.)
The acting in this is just sad, mainly because Shyamalan takes a bevy of talented, established actors and makes them look like utter, one-dimensional crap. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are reduced to running around, consistently wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Their characters are shocked little founts of questions, and that’s pretty much it. The best acting in this is done by John Leguizamo, shockingly enough. Yes, the man who was The Pest and irritated us for years on end outshines Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Betty Buckley(!). For what’s it worth, I saw this in a packed house on opening night, and when Leguizamo dies, he easily got the biggest reaction from the audience. I could hear some woman moaning, “Oh god no,” all the way down in the front row.
Wide eyes? Looks of confusion and surprise? Sit through that for an entire movie, tell me what you think.
Buckley herself is utterly tragic. It’s hard to imagine such an…ignominious role for someone that’s practically a living Broadway legend. Elliot and his wife stumble across her when they’re looking for an isolated town away from others, and Buckley’s character is nothing more than a crazy old woman. Nothing else. No back story, no nothing, just five minutes of “filler time” and a role to give the audience a couple of cheap shocks or two while she’s on screen. It’s needlessly depressing.
But in the end, as we’ve been beat over the head endlessly, it all comes back to one person:
You’re not as good as you think you are. That’s right, I said it.
The writing is mediocre; the directing is not great. I’ve never been to film school, but if I were directing this film, I would’ve tried to shoot it where the plants are almost like an extra character in the scenes, but all you get are tight shots of the humans. Also, Ding Dong’s refusal to actually move the camera drives me nuts for some unknown reason. Every shot is a fixed shot; there’s no camera movement; you’re just stuck there. I could barely watch the movie because it kept distracting me so much (don’t ask me why, ’cause I certainly don’t know). More than anything, this is an average to above-average filmmaker who refuses to let go of the delusion that he is super-great. This is a man who has no measure of his own abilities. I honestly believe that Shyamalan thinks he is the second coming of Hitchcock, which is really not the case.
The man’s ego is what ruins it; his inability to actually put aside the idea that anything he comes up with is “good” is what ruins him. If he’d stop and rework, or actually let other people in on the process – and not be so damned ornery about “It’s my way or the highway”, then maybe something would get done a little better. I vaguely remember hearing a story about a movie exec getting fired because she had the brass to suggest to Ding Dong that he make revisions to his Lady in the Water script. Laugh with me now, folks. (I hope that exec put that on her resume. “Fired from X Studios for suggesting M. Night Shyamalan make better movies.” I’d hire her.)
The problem is that it’s futile to sit through this. The message (and contempt of the director for his audience) is perfectly clear, but a mediocre film looks like a great one when you consider the previous trainwrecks that were The Village and Lady in the Water. Just because this is better than what came before doesn’t mean it’s as good as what it could have been – and that’s an extraordinarily frustrating feeling to walk out of the theater with.
I’d advise you to wait for it on DVD and rent. And not to put too much faith into it. I’m convinced after this to never see another Ding Dong movie as long as I live, because I don’t feel like walking out of the theater and needing to rinse the mental taste out of my brain.