Shyamalan Week: The Spiritual Trilogy

Introduction

With After Earth being released this week it struck me that the timing was good to revisit not only some of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films but also some old pieces I wrote about him or his works that have not yet made their way over to this site.

This particular piece is brand new, however, and the thought occurred to me after having revisited Wide Awake/em>.

Wide Awake and The Spiritual Trilogy

Wide Awake (1998, Miramax)

Wide Awake was released in in 1998, and was a film I was looking forward to seeing at the time. This was based on both the trailer and the fact that I was a fan of Rosie O’Donnell’s at the time (Granted her involvement was slightly oversold, but that’s marketing). Indie films, even ones distributed by Miramax, were not as easy for me to get a hold of so it had to wait until its home video release, but I recall being very taken with the film then. I had not revisited it many times since but still had fond memories of it.

Wide Awake garnered 7 BAM Award nominations, which are my personal year-end picks. Mind you that M. Night Shyamalan would not be a director I knew anything about, or someone most people knew, until The Sixth Sense took off; it was just a reaction to what I saw, no hype, nothing.

Wide Awake is about a grade school boy (Joseph Cross) not only coping with the loss of his grandfather but dealing with very big questions because of it. He is concerned for the fate of this grandfather’s immortal soul, questions his own religion, the existence of God and more things that are not usually the purview of one so young.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

With The Sixth Sense Shyamalan takes a turn towards the supernatural but many of the same answers are being searched for by the young protagonist. Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment, the protagonist of The Sixth Sense has this unique ability to see the dead, he doesn’t know what they want, why they come to him, why they won’t leave him be and what it all means. All he knows for sure is that he’s terrified and trying to understand what the meaning of death is and by inference the meaning of life.

Moving Forward

Praying with Anger (1992, Cinevista)

For many who seek to trace the career of Shyamalan they erroneously trace it back just to The Sixth Sense. However, even my analysis will only go so far. I can assert through an educated guess that The Sixth Sense closes out a thematic trilogy, a period of work Shyamalan had not unlike a painter. His first feature Praying with Anger was filmed in India while he was still an undergraduate.

According to the synopsis it tells the tale of an “Alienated, Americanized teenager of East Indian heritage sent back to India where he discovers not only his roots but a lot about himself.” Praying with Anger has never been readily available on video in the US, or at least it hasn’t been for some time, though it does seem it had one week in one theater in 1992. Myself and many others have been unable to see it, and that is probably by design, it seems rather clear that there was a spiritual, soul-searching phase that kicked off Shyamalan’s career.

The next phase wherein he discussed wanting to make what amounted to feature-length Twilight Zone episodes, would spin-off from The Sixth Sense, but the that film stands a bit apart from the others. Interestingly, while it caps the first theme it also acts as a transitional film to the titles that come. If one is to look at the next three films (Unbreakable, Signs and The Village) there are certainly more commonalities in those three films when removing The Sixth Sense from that grouping.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

This phase notion is one I never really considered, but what I do know is that it can get you pegged. It turns out that the similarities that The Sixth Sense did bear with the next three set some people up. However, I recently mentioned that one of the pitfalls of auteur criticism is just that. You expect things too readily and I never even thought of grouping his first three films. Steven Spielberg tried to dodge pidgeonholes people tried to keep him in for as long as he could. He attempted to avoid films too similar to one another back-to-back until later on in his career with two straight dramas (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) or his dark futures (A.I. and Minority Report). Yet, even he had associations dog him. Aliens, for example.

I’m not comparing the two filmmakers, but rather finding one point of comparison: both broke through with a massive hit at a young age that put them under the microscope. Both Shyamalan and Spielberg have had their missteps and their big early hits, and both have had to contend with people attempting to define them. One of the things that Spielberg benefitted from is that he was at the vanguard of director-as-star. With Shyamalan it was an accepted notion that he was lumped into due to his being the creative force behind a worldwide box office smash.

Conclusion

Wide Awake (1998, Miramax)

Essentially, what I am seeking in this series of writings is to merely examine the works more closely. I am not writing a persuasive essay. His films don’t work for some and that’s fine, but I am also not coming from an over-rationalizing fanboy’s perspective either. I later on connected Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense. All I knew about The Sixth Sense as it was looming was that it looked good and I wanted to see it. After I had I recognized that name in the credits, and checked the IMDb. So in some ways I was a lot like other people discovering who he was and what his voice at the time was. I just already had a track record with his work is all.

Essentially, if you’re going to look at the trajectory of his career his first three films, the actual first three films and I believe have to be looked at as one unit. Call it a cinematic coming-of-age if you will. In the next three he’s exploring a particular milieu and genre. From that point on he’s been branching out and we will get to those in due course.

Best of Spielberg

Here’s a second installment of a list idea I’m borrowing from Brian Saur. Here I will discuss the films of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is probably my favorite director of all time. I did an Ingmar Bergman list first, in part to track what I still needed to see. With Spielberg my impetus was to finally be up to date on his narrative features, which sadly I wasn’t.

As with any list, rankings may make thing seem worse than they are. There are 30 films on this list. Make no mistake I like 28 of them and am a snarky fanboy on one, and three have at one point been my all-time favorite, including my current number one (if pressed to answer). Here goes…

30. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

This is the sequel Spielberg supposedly gave Universal so they’d leave E.T. alone. That’s almost enough to bump it past last place but I can’t. Even though I loved the score and effects it was still one of the worst, most confounding thing I saw that year. The third film and news of a fourth have softened that hurt, but seeing newly-introduced annoying character and the follow-up to my then favorite film of all-time relegated to a Godzilla/King Kong knock-off hurt.

29. 1941 (1979)

1941 (1979, Universal/Columbia)

I did try to like this. My professor tried to get me to like it. I just don’t. Spielberg doesn’t care much for it either and has moved on to bigger and better things.

28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Paramount)

Nuking the fridge only happened in one scene people, Shia LaBeouf had many more scenes than that and Cate Blanchett seemed uncomfortable. Spielberg has since honestly confessed what his reservations were about this film. Hopefully that molds a better fifth film should it occur, though he certainly doesn’t need there to be one.

27. Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997, Universal)

As oddly engaging as Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is, if memory serves, there was an attempt at such here too that doesn’t work quite as well. I remember Honsou and Hopkins impressed but not much else.

26. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal (2004, DreamWorks)

Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which appears shortly, I wasn’t even compelled to go out and see this one theatrically. It’s an interesting and well-handled idea that I can indentify with on a few levels but it’s just not one of his best.

25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (segment 2) (1983)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Paramount)

I saw this recently also and Spielberg’s segment fits him to a tee (residents of a retirement home become young again) and is the second best in the anthology in my estimation behind Joe Dante’s zany one.

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist (1982, Paramount)

One can debate the nuances and politics of whether Spielberg really directed this. To be brief: I have it on good authority that he directed most of it and just didn’t take the credit because he couldn’t per DGA rules at the time. This is a title where I could rant and rave childishly about how “My opinion is different than yours!” but I won’t. Poltergeist is fine, it just never had a tremendous amount of impact on me.

23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Paramount)

To address the white elephant in the room: I do not have any issue with the character of Shortround whatsoever. Temple of Doom lands here more for being the third best in the series and Kate Capshaw than anything else.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002, DreamWorks)

This is one of those that falls into the category of “There’s nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t get into it.”

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974, Universe)

This is an unusual but involving one with a great turn by a young Goldie Hawn.

20. Always (1989)

Always (1989, Universal)

This one film I finally saw last year so as I could finally create this list. I had avoided it because in clips and trailers you could not get a sense of the totality of the film. It is Spielberg’s first remake, but it’s a fairly well modernized one that features Audrey Hepburn‘s final performance.

19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Columbia)

Spielberg has said that the end of this film dates him as a filmmaker. I understand his point entirely but he does set it up very well. Also, in a bit of fanboy wish-fulfillment, I’d suggest the end of this film and the end of E.T. swap, but it is a very visual and evocative film with the added bonus of an acting-only participation by François Truffaut.

18. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

The mark of a great director is making something that seems illogical, that shouldn’t be able to work, work. This is his best example ih that regard.

17. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002, DreamWorks)

If Robopocalypse, or something like it, ever comes to fruition it would complete a Dark Future Trilogy for Spielberg, which may seem antithetical to his ethos but something he said he’s not averse to when discussing A.I.

16. Munich (2005)

Munich (2005, DreamWorks)

I welcome departures from directors. Spielberg is perhaps more underrated in terms of his diversity than any other director. His hits and classics have commonalities to them such that it makes people think he repeats himself constantly. These two selections shake that notion massively. Munich is a dark film, where there can be no happy endings. It’s a chillingly rendered tale of an ugly incident in history that cannot be buried.

15. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012, DreamWorks)

Lincoln almost isn’t a Spielberg film, it plays with such classical restraint and removal that it’s almost anti-auteurish, but it’s still very engaging and convincing.

14. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005, Paramount)

I think this film might get overlooked in part because it stuck close to the source material, but also because it’s the kind of film Spielberg “should” take on. However, when you consider how often he’s made aliens benevolent a surviving an alien apocalypse tale is a little different for him. That and it’s another rather imperfect family.

13. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975, Universal)

Here’s where rankings can get you in trouble. Jaws is great. I have nothing I can say against it, except the intangible “I like other works in Spielberg’s canon a lot better.” I have and can see Jaws many times over. It’s just a matter of preference when you start slotting them.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Paramount)

Yes, the Indiana Jones and the was later tacked on. Spielberg and Lucas have combined perfectly three times in this series. They take a serialized approach to a feature and update classic tropes very well and memorably.

11. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Columbia/Paramount)

When Spielberg is at his best he combines technological innovation with great stories. Although I fell under the spell of seeing motion capture for the first time in The Polar Express, it was imperfectly ahead of his time and didn’t make a jump toward verisimilitude until this film. It’s a very viable tool other animation properties should and could use. Not only that it’s a great take and a global re-introduction of a beloved character. Not many directors go from live action to animation or vice versa, this is a seamless jump.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Paramount)

I am a fan of the Indiana Jones series, albeit a Johnny Comelately to it, and this is my favorite one. More explanation can be found in the link above.

9. Duel (1971)

Duel (1971, Universal TV)

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie that prove that it’s a meaningless distinction, it’s this one. I have to remind myself it is one. Only once in a hundred times when I think about this movie do I recall that. It’s taut, brilliantly suspenseful and relatably frightening.

8. War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011, DreamWorks)

War Horse is one I need to revisit, but this one vaults up the list due to improbability. Spielberg is one of the directors I go out and see regardless, however, I didn’t expect much here. I was anxious for Tintin, but this one shook up my whole best of the year list. Very surprisingly emotional and engaging.

7. The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985, Warner Bros.)

One of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history is perhaps the fact that this film is the biggest oh-fer, garnering eleven nominations and no wins. Spielberg created some controversy by even taking this film on. I think the end result proved he could do it and paved the way for his more mature dramatic works later on.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros.)

I saw this in 2002 just after having taken my Spielberg course. I hadn’t really heard of it ’til then. It was referenced as Spielberg’s “most European film” by my professor and one that I began anticipating in A.I.-like fashion, which should’ve set me up for disappointment, but didn’t. It’s dense and takes some wading but when you get there it’s special. Not to mention there’s a brilliant performance by a young Christian Bale.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

The next two films are ones that I really admire, have great affection for, but am leery to revisit because they are taxing experiences. However, they’re important and I hope their legacy continues through oncoming generations. A while ago, I recall I saw a kid picking up Schindler’s List at a video store and it was heartwarming, as I saw a burgeoning cineaste.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, DreamWorks)

It took me a while to see this one. The tale of saving the last surviving brother is the MacGuffin, a very Spielbergian one. However, the reaction I had to this film, though very different than many of his works, was one of the strongest I had. It was a new aesthetic for him and in many ways a revolutionary work.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Nearly any child of the 80s grew up on Spielberg films. I will be doing a focus on Disney, which I surmise that unless you saw re-releases and VHS tapes you weren’t getting the golden age of that studio. However, if you grew up in the 80s, regardless of who you were, odds are every few years Spielberg changed your life. E.T. is an imaginary friend come true, it’s not necessarily always an alien, but many of us were Elliot, which is what makes it resonate.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Suffice it to say that upon its release, when I was still quite young, this was probably the most amazing theatrical experience I’d ever encountered. I’ve found myriad great films since then but this one has not lost its luster in the slightest. When I first saw it, this was the greatest film of my lifetime. It was the dream of every dinorsaur-loving child brought to life for better and for worse.

1. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, DreamWorks)

I’ve already written a tome about this film, which I have posted on this site in installments. Making a new or different case for it would be nearly pointless.