Pictured above? Those are, somewhat embarrassingly, mine. Randomly shelved between my favorite Michael Mann flick and the real The Office, there's a solid sampling of M. Night Shyamalan's major films: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water. (No doubt I'll get some shit for having anything beyond Unbreakable on my shelves, but hey, at least I don't own The Happening.)
I note this 'cause Shyamalan's latest—a god-awful live-action adaptation of the great Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender—made $40 million this weekend, a big number that's all the more impressive and/or depressing thanks to the fact that the film currently boasts an eight percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It's not really surprising: Terrible movies frequently make tons of money. (Though that's certainly not to say everything that rakes in dough is automatically terrible, nor that terrible movies don't just as frequently bomb.) In fact, in The Last Airbender's case, success was kinda expected: The cartoon has a huge and diverse fanbase. It's just... disappointing. And maybe more disappointing for me, the guy who owns no less than five of Shyamalan's movies. Up until fairly recently, I was the guy who was still a fan of Shyamalan; now, I'm one more person who just wants him to stop making movies.
Airbender's impressive opening isn't an automatic green light for a sequel—it cost $150 million to make, so it has a long way to go before it becomes profitable for Paramount—but I was hoping it'd bomb, and bomb hard. An opening this big (heh) means Shyamalan will keep getting work—something that wasn't certain after Lady in the Water and The Happening. This is the equivalent of giving your dog a Milk-Bone after he takes a big shit on your bed.
The reason I have those Shymalan DVDs if I want him to stop making movies? 'Cause some of those are fucking good. The Sixth Sense is still fantastic, original and weird and fun and sad. Unbreakable is still one of the best superhero movies ever made. Signs still creeps me right the fuck out. The Village has moments of austere and chilling beauty. Lady in the Water... uh, okay. I'm not sure how I ended up with Lady in the Water, but it does feature (A) the incredibly egotistical Shyamalan playing a writer whose work will save the world and (B) a movie critic getting killed by some sort of hell-hound made out of plants or something, so at least it's got some entertainment value. But in general: Aside from Water, the above films are gorgeously shot and, frequently, impressively edited. More so than many recent American filmmakers, Shyamalan—in his early work, at least—has a truly impressive command of tone and an incredible eye: His slow pans through the gorgeous and ominous Village, his clever and escalating tension in Sixth Sense, his insightful, weird channeling of E.T.-era Spielberg in Signs, used to tell a very different alien invasion story. I won't deny that Shymalan's twists don't always hold up, nor am I gonna argue that his sometimes clumsy scripts are works of art—but the guy, at one point, could be a hell of a director.
He's not anymore. Watching The Last Airbender—an embarrassingly poorly written film that has clearly been edited down from a longer version, resulting in a frequently confusing, incomprehensible mess of goofy gibberish—I had the same feeling that I had watching The Happening: embarrassment. This shit is fundamentally broken, stupid and bland and awkward and tone-deaf, and all the more so when compared to something like Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Meanwhile, the frequently derided Shyamalan seems to neither know nor care how unwatchable his films have become.
That's a bummer for all the families that dropped a shit-ton of money for tickets to 3D screenings of The Last Airbender this past weekend, but—more selfishly—it's a bummer for me. God knows the last thing this world needs is one more self-involved, self-important, self-loathing film critic whining about how disappointed they are in this or that, but fuck it: Stop it, Shyamalan. Your stuff used to be good. You used to give a shit. You used to be able to tell what was working and what wasn't. At the very least, your films used to be beautiful to look at, or have more good moments than bad ones.
I wanted The Last Airbender to fail not because I wanted a bad adaptation of the Avatar cartoon—god, that show could have been made into an awesome movie—but because Shyamalan's version of it was terrible. And also, just a little bit, because maybe having a film that big fail—not only on an artistic level, but a commercial one as well—would send some sort of message to Shyamalan and the dumbasses who keep hiring him: Either it's time for Shyamalan to stop making movies, or he needs to go back to making movies that're worth people's time.
The Last Airbender is probably gonna get at least one sequel. It's tentatively planned for a 2012 release.
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