At one time M. Night Shyamalan was an exciting film maker. With his first major film, The Sixth Sense, he crafted an interesting and engrossing tale that was well received by the public and critics alike. His next film, Unbreakable, was a bit of a let down, but still a solid effort. Unfortunately his films have continued to decline in quality. The low point in his oeuvre has to be his latest film, Lady in the Water, a bed time story that Night would tell his daughters before they went to sleep. It may have been interesting to a child at night, but as a movie it comes across as a muddled, self-indulgent, and ultimately unsatisfying film that fails on many levels.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the maintenance man at a small apartment complex, The Cove. The complex is inhabited by a wide range of wacky and unique characters, from the man who is a master level crossword puzzle champ to the oriental college student who dresses like a hooker to the guy who is constantly working out, but only the right side of his body, there are a lot of one dimensional characters who populate this story.
Now Heep knows that someone's been swimming in the pool after dark (no one does during the day it seems, so you'd think Heep would be happy that it was getting some use) which is against the rules. One evening he sees someone jump out of the water for just a second, so he calmly walks into the pool with his clothes on. He swims around fully clad for a while, and then gets out, slips on the concrete, rolls over into the pool, reaches for the edge, and then somehow looses conciseness. (If none of this makes sense to you, you'll know how I felt watching this film.) He wakes up in his room with a naked girl, Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), watching over him.
It turns out that Story is a Narf, one of the water people who stopped man from waging war in ancient times. Now Story is trying to contact "the vessel". After she sees him she can go back to her people, content that she's done her job. With Cleveland's help Story does encounter the person she's supposed to meet, a writer who, now that she's cleared his mind, will pen an important book that will change the entire world. Someone who will be responsible for leading humanity into a new age: a character played by Shyamalan himself.
Now that Story has done her job, she has to return to her people in the water. The only problem is that a Scrunt is hunting her, and she can't make it to the giant Eagle who will return her to the sea. The stoic and quiet Narf has to rely on the help of Heep and his weird tenants to reunite her with her kind.
There were a lot of things that were wrong with this movie. The characters were flat and lifeless, the story was filled with more false endings than a dozen Spielberg films, and there were numerous plot holes that were hard to ignore. What it boiled down to though was that it's really hard to care what happens to any of the characters. There just isn't any context to place these people into. A good story to compare this to is another fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien's work, the reader knows exactly where the heroes stand, what they have to do and the consequences for failure. In this film viewers never have that feeling. What happens if the Scrunt kills Story? Well, she'll be dead, but so what? Why did she reveal herself to Heep when she was hiding from him earlier? Why was she hiding? It's questions like this that make it hard to enjoy this film.
Another deficit is Shyamalan's directorial style. I've enjoyed the way he shot other films, but this one looks like something someone fresh out of film school would shoot. He doesn't concentrate on telling the story but rather seeing how many fancy and unique shots he can incorporate into the movie. There are a lot of scenes where the interesting part of the sequence isn't shown in an attempt to build interest. When the acerbic film critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban) is introduced to a new neighbor, Cindy Cheung, you see Farber's eye's nearly pop out of his skull as he stares at the Asian beauty, though on screen viewers can only see her back. It's cute once or twice, but eventually you start noticing all of Night's film tricks at the expense of the story. These are a constant reminder that you're watching a movie and that makes it much harder to get into the story and empathize with the characters.
The acting was only mediocre at best too. In order to make Paul Giamatti's character more human, Night decided to give him a stutter. This may have looked good on paper, but in the movie it just seems oddly irritating. Bryce Dallas Howard's talents are not put to use either. She spends much of the film sitting in a shower, and when she talks she always whispers. She has a vague drugged look throughout the movie. Pretty much all she does is stare off into space. Night himself gives an amateur performance as the savior of mankind. The only character that I was really drawn to was Bob Balaban's as the arrogant film critic. His role was funny but suggests that Night needs to learn the meaning of subtlety.
The 1.85:1 widescreen image looks good but not great. There is a fine amount of detail and though I haven't screened the SD version of the film, I'm sure that this HD version is an improvement. That said, this isn't an impressive BD. The film isn't as eye-popping as other HD discs have been and the colors aren't as vibrant. The colors are generally dreary and they don't have that richness that people have come to expect from HD images. The picture is also a bit softer than I was expecting, which is a shame. Digitally, the disc looks fine. There were no problems with posterization, aliasing, or other compression artifacts.
This film comes with a Dolby Digital EX track that reproduced the sounds of the film well but still left something to be desired. Like the film itself, the audio presentation just didn't work. This is one of those audio tracks that ignores the surround speakers during 90% of the film and only throws sound their way when an action sequence is starting. This is generally a soft movie. It can be hard to hear some of the whispered dialog at times and there isn't really a lot of dialog in the first place. That's fine, but then the director will throw in loud noises to startle the audience, sprinklers abruptly turning on during a suspenseful moment. (He does this trick with the sprinklers three times during the film. Come on, give it a rest already, or at least think of something else.) The attack of the Scrunt was effective with his low growling being particularly effective. It's just too bad that there weren't more ambient sounds to help draw the viewer into the world that Shyamalan was trying to create.
I wasn't that impressed by the quality of the bonus material included with this disc. The six part Reflections on Lady in the Water ran a little more than half an hour altogether, but it was a mostly fluff with the producers, cast, and crew all stating how wonderful this "modern day fairy tale" is, what an honor it is to work with M. Night Shyamalan, and oh, yeah, the movie is really a bedtime story for children of all ages. I can't say I learned anything about the movie or its making from this.
There is also a handful of deleted scenes that were justifiably cut, a two minute audition reel which was interesting, some trailers for the film, and a gag reel that is the most unfunny extra of this type that I've seen. This latter bonus feature just contains that cast laughing between takes. We don't get to see what they're laughing at or why in most cases, but it must have been funny if you were there.
I've enjoyed many of M. Night Shyamalan's films, but I can't say that
this one did anything for me. The direction is intrusive, the acting
mediocre, and its very hard to care for any of the characters. The
first thing that a fairy tale is supposed to do is engage the listener,
and this movie fails to do that. With only an average looking HD
image, don't bother with this one. Skip it.