If professional critics are the soothsayers of a filmmaker’s career, M. Night Shyamalan’s past few efforts place him somewhere between a foot in the grave and Uwe Boll. From Signs to The Village and now most recently Lady in the Water, he has been progressively criticized as everything from a creative hack to a one-trick pony (re: The Sixth Sense) to a self-indulgent egomaniac. I, on the other hand, have enjoyed every one of his films to some degree and have always been surprised and entertained by his signature twist endings. Lady in the Water is the first Shyamalan film to depart from the inevitable shocking finale and rely more on the total package, placing it under scrutiny more intense than any supposedly fledging director has seen before.
Lady in the Water is the first film idea Shyamalan didn’t conceive for himself, a crucial point I suspect most critics brush under the mat. The script spawned from a bedtime story Shyamalan concocted for his young children based on the question, “what lurks in the back yard?” His kids loved it and with each subsequent telling the story grew and expanded nightly. From there it evolved into an illustrated published children’s story and ultimately expanded one last time to accommodate the big screen.
Close-minded adults will surely balk at the idea of a beautiful sea creature named Story living in an apartment complex swimming pool who brings with her enlightenment that will forever change the human race and escape riding a giant eagle. They might also laugh at the wolf-like Skrunt creature stalking her from the tall grass or the mysterious monkey creatures stalking it from the trees. These are, after all, the fantastical ingredients of a straightforward bedtime story whether they’re inserted into a reality-based setting of an apartment complex or not. To investigate their plausibility or treat them as anything else is giving up on the bedtime story before it has a chance to unfold.
Shyamalan’s departure from his past efforts do reach further than the main narrative and, in select cases, are impossible not to perceive as self-indulgence. Unlike a random and inconsequential cameo normally found in a typical Shyamalan film, the director has inserted himself and his cardboard acting abilities into not only a main role, but the role of a man whose superior writings will influence the entire planet. As if expecting a windfall of negative energy from critics from this move, he wrote another character as a snotty know-it-all film critic who ultimately cannot use his library of film knowledge to outsmart the Scrunt in a one-on-one encounter. At least this character was well written and acted to perfection by Bob Balaban, unlike Shyamalan’s stone-faced performance.
Despite these questionable creative decisions including an abrupt and frankly unfulfilling conclusion, the glue that holds Lady in the Water above water is yet another humorous and emotionally charged performance by Paul Giamatti. He out-acts the other supporting apartment dwellers by a long shot, and through his genuine interactions makes their personalities more appealing than they’d otherwise be under different circumstances. I fear without Paul carrying the load I’d quickly find myself picketing Shyamalan’s next effort rather than anticipating it.
Warner Home Video has encoded Lady in the Water on Blu-ray Disc in 1.85:1 1080p with VC-1. By choice of Shymalan and his cinematographer, much of the film has been shot to appear dark and dingy to set the mood of a mysterious apartment complex invaded by otherworldly beings. With little eye-popping material to work with, the transfer is merely manageable and without major flaws save for some softness during some of the interior scenes. Blacks, and there are many of them, hold up well and never succumb to macro-blocking or pixilation.
In an unexpected and irregular move, Warner has included both lossless Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 EX tracks ” the first 7.1 mix on a high definition disc from Warner to date. But of all the films for Warner to throw its sonic muscle behind, why this one? Aside from a memorable and enveloping score, the mix is fairly flat and front heavy with an abundance of dialogue. There is little use for the extra surrounds a 7.1 mix affords and they are hardly put to use. Even the choice to include lossless Dolby TrueHD seems questionable considering Warner has, thus far, picked and chosen which titles receive this treatment. If this film deserves lossless audio, all Warner films should receive the same treatment moving forward.
The available extra features, despite a misprint on the back of the box, are identical to those found on the standard DVD i.e. they are presented in 480i and not 1080p. The bulk of material can be found in a six-part documentary Reflections of Lady in the Water. This intriguing piece delves into most of the typical components required to piece together a film: location, script, look, characters, creatures, and post production. Critical audiences might unexpectedly find a greater appreciation for the film amongst the tidbits of information Shyamalan doles out. Auditions plays out more like a brief gag reel of vomiting tryouts than what the name infers. Gag auditions would have been a more appropriate title. A handful of Deleted Scenes offer nothing more than unnecessary dialogue exchanges, and a Teaser and Theatrical Trailer round out a respectable but not mind-blowing selection of extras.
I can’t help but feel Lady in the Water has received heaps of unjust scathing criticism. Is the film perfect? No, not even close. Is it a letdown not to be wowed by the telegraphed ending? Yes, even overwhelmingly disappointing. But digested as a bedtime story and nothing more, Lady in the Water is another prime example of Shyamalan thinking outside the box and delivering a unique cinematic experience. For the open-minded, it’s worth a rent on Blu-ray to get the best presentation available, even if the disc’s specs outweigh the material they support.