M. Night Shyamalan has a lot at stake with next Friday's opening of LADY IN THE WATER. One of the few directors whose name carries marketing clout with mainstream audiences, Shyamalan's greatest commercial success, THE SIXTH SENSE, is also one of his greatest burdens. People loved the twist ending, and it's fair to say that they expected him to pull the rug out from under them in his follow-up films. Shyamalan's attempts to do so have been met with diminished enthusiasm, at least if the chatter on internet movie sites is any indication. Many felt burned by THE VILLAGE. Although it made more money at the box office than UNBREAKABLE, it was easily the worst reviewed spooker he's made. (I think it's his best film to date and placed it in my Top 10 of 2004.) It's not a good sign that when I saw the new, more intense LADY IN THE WATER trailer before SUPERMAN RETURNS some of the audience greeted it with audible groans.
Being tabbed "the next Spielberg" in an August 5, 2002 NEWSWEEK cover story put a target on him for critics and entertainment writers, in part because Shyamalan wasn't shy about voicing his ambition to achieve that level of success. Reportedly Shyamalan has a sizable ego, which would hardly seem to be a crime in Hollywood or of consequence as long as his work holds up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, with LADY IN THE WATER the entertainment journos can smell blood.
They're prepared to pounce in part because of Michael Bamberger's book THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES: OR, HOW M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN RISKED HIS CAREER ON A FAIRY TALE. (I haven't read it, but Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt in their current issue.) Bilge Ebiri doesn't think Shyamalan deserves the scorn directed at him or that the book is his way of getting back at his former home studio. David Poland, not a big Shyamalan supporter if going by his previous columns, thinks that LADY IN THE WATER is a make-or-break film in the director's career.
Whether it turns out to be a film maudit, blockbuster, or something in between, LADY IN THE WATER appears poised to determine if Shyamalan will be perceived in the industry as a major commercial filmmaker. Has he lost the trust of moviegoers? Are his wide-reaching ambitions outdone by an overly insular perspective of his work? As a fan of his films and someone underwhelmed by most of this summer's big movies, I hope he can deliver the goods, but even if he does, I have a feeling that the tide has already turned on him in the minds of audiences and critics.