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M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” his adaptation of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” cartoon series, topped $125 million in its first month of release. It’s already the 13th highest-grossing film of the year, and in the few overseas markets where it has opened so far (Russia, Ukraine, Japan), the CGI-driven fantasy has attracted enthusiastic crowds and about $30 million in additional box office.
But take a look at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, the online movie-review aggregators, and “The Last Airbender” is among the most widely reviled releases of 2010: “Mind-bendingly turgid!” “The worst botch of a fantasy epic!” “An agonizing experience in every category!”
Or this, from the Chicago Reader’s Cliff Doerksen: “The current national priorities should be as follows: reduce carbon emissions and stop funding the films of M. Night Shyamalan.”
Like the menacing creatures lurking in the dark woods of the filmmaker’s “The Village,” like the ominous aliens skulking through the cornfields of his “Signs,” the Shyamalan haters are out there, loud and legion.
“Yeah, it’s a phenomenon — that’s a kind way to put it,” says the director, laughing it off last week at a Starbucks close to his Chester County, Pa., farm. “It’s something that I’ve thought about forever. ... It feels a little bit personal.”
He may be onto something there. In 1999, “The Sixth Sense,” his somber shot-in-Philly ghost story, earned six Oscar nominations (including best picture and best director), $672.8 million worldwide, and a Newsweek cover story touting him as “the next Spielberg.” And it proffered the pop-cult catchphrase “I see dead people.”
Since then, the director’s movies have continued to fare well. Certainly, none have approached “The Sixth Sense’s” mega-numbers, but with the exception of 2006’s “Lady in the Water” (in which Shyamalan gleefully kills off a character who happens to be a movie critic), none have tanked, either.
But tell that to the bloggers, critics, Twitterers, and message-boarders whose seething contempt for the filmmaker pulsates on the Web.
“M. Night Shyamalan is kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of directors — he can’t get no respect,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of Hollywood.com. “When your first mainstream film is so brilliant and such a huge box-office and critical success, you’re going to work your whole career chasing that cachet ... and I think he’s really had to do that.
“But he’s sort of had the last laugh with ‘The Last Airbender,’ because the movie has performed very well. ... And while the critics were busy trashing it, the audience was busy going to see the movie.”
Shaun Toub, who plays the fire-wielding master Uncle Iroh in “The Last Airbender,” says the vitriol is uncalled for.
“I understand critics have a job to do, and I understand that the movie is not perfect,” the actor says. “But I don’t appreciate it when it becomes personal, and some of the attacks are personal, directed at Night. The comments are overboard.”
Olivia Williams, who starred as Bruce Willis’ wife in “The Sixth Sense,” says, “I have huge admiration for the way Night doggedly pursues his way of working in the face of criticism.”
For Shyamalan, whose passion for filmmaking is palpable — his eyes light up as he talks about legendary sound designer Randy Thom, with whom he worked for the first time on “The Last Airbender” — the disconnect has begun to make sense.
While he likens the presence of his name above the title to John Grisham or Stephen King putting theirs on the cover of their respective tomes, such a move, he says, is perceived by many as arrogance.
“I think I get it,” he says, working a frappuccino custom-made by a starstruck Starbucks barista. “It’s the presentation of the movies as author-driven. ... Here in the United States, that comes with a stigma of hubris.”
But “we don’t assume that Johnny Depp’s ego is out of control because we see his name above the title,” counters Shyamalan, who nonetheless came across as a kind of vainglorious bighead in a fawning 2006 authorized biography, “The Man Who Heard Voices.”
“The person that they’re talking about doesn’t exist,” he insists. “And that’s what’s confusing. ... I feel an incredible sense of humility in the face of the responsibility that these films represent. There are hundreds of individuals working on these films, and their families ... and I think like I’m responsible for them. And Philly, I feel responsible (for) — that’s where I come from. ...
“So that’s how I’ve rationalized it. I’m trying to understand it.”
And trying to move on to his next film, or films. Shyamalan — who lives with his wife, Bhavna Vaswani, a psychologist whom he met when they were at New York University, and their two daughters — is honing the script for a thriller about a father whose child goes missing. Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow and “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable’s” Willis will star — if scheduling allows. Shyamalan will shoot in Philadelphia (“of course!”). He says it’s like “Taken,” but with a supernatural element.
There also are two more “Airbenders” mapped out. With its CGI, visual effects, locations in Greenland, and a 3-D conversion, “The Last Airbender” cost an estimated $150 million — by far Shyamalan’s priciest endeavor. Paramount probably won’t make a decision about the sequels, says the director, until the fall, when the global grosses are tallied. Until then, Shyamalan will work on his original script and try to relax, not worry, not push things.
“I’m trying to be very not like me,” he says, laughing again. “I’m normally ‘from 9 to 9:30 I’m going to do this’ — but I’m trying to be more loosey-goosey. My wife’s been entertained by the fact that I’m walking around saying, ‘I’m cool! Whatever happens, happens.’”
He adds, “We’re all like so driven in American culture, and I want to be more sipping-something-at-the-cafe-with-a-crepe-and-maybe-I-might-write-today.”
Another project he has going — and another cause for derision in the blogosphere — is the “Night Chronicles,” a series of low-budget supernatural thrillers distributed by Universal and branded, a la Hitchcock. Shyamalan comes up with the stories, and gets other writers and directors to realize them. The series’ inaugural title, “Devil,” about a group of people trapped in an elevator, opens Sept. 17. But when the trailer ran in a New York theater a couple of weeks ago, audience members guffawed when the words “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” appeared on-screen. Perez Hilton posted a YouTube video of the moment (it’s since been taken down), and the press jumped all over it.
A shrug. A pause. Then: “There’s a million articles like that about everybody in every newspaper about everything.” Which isn’t exactly true. And isn’t exactly the point. “Are they not going to come see the movie because of that?” Shyamalan says. “It’s a really good trailer. It’s a really good movie.”
“Devil’s” directing duo, brothers Drew and John Eick Dowdle, dismiss the snarkiness.
“It just makes us more excited to release the film,” they said in an e-mail (which reads like it might have been tweaked by a publicist). “Night wrote a great treatment, and as a producer he created an environment that allowed us to make a highly original film within the current studio environment. ... We think ‘The Night Chronicles’ banner as a whole will be an important contribution to the genre.”
Shyamalan has “Twelve Strangers,” a sort of “12 Angry Men” but with a supernatural element, lined up as the next “Night Chronicle.” He’s looking at prospective directors. And a third story is in the works.
“I have these notebooks full of these ideas and characters,” he says, “and I said, ‘Is anybody interested in making lower-budget movies where I get to work with the great up-and-coming filmmakers?’
“It’s a lonely thing, making movies, and this is my way of bringing the new, exciting people to challenge me and talk to me and tell me how they’re thinking about things.”
Shyamalan turns 40 on Friday. He has made nine features in 18 years; his first two, “Praying With Anger” (in which he also starred) and “Wide Awake,” were small indie affairs. The worldwide box office for his seven studio releases: near $2 billion. And his love for movies, and of moviemaking, seems as strong as ever.
But one senses that his attitude is shifting, that he’s come to realize that what for him is a matter of pride in his work has been misinterpreted out there in the world.
“Maybe it’s coincidental, but maybe not,” he says about the changes he’s feeling and the fact he’s on the cusp of 40. “You know, maybe you feel reflective a little bit about things. Your head’s not down as much, driving forward through the line and just trying to get the ball across the goal line. You’re looking around more, analyzing more, thinking more.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but inherently you get to this place of introspection.”
// Short Ends and Leader
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