M. Knight Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense", and his latest film, "Signs",
have both done very well at the box office, not to mention gaining some
critical acclaim. He brings a wonderful sense of mood to the screen,
portrays human emotion effectively, uses dialog well, and his slow,
determined pacing takes the audience through wonderful psychological
distresses. He also presents interesting and compelling supernatural ideas
for a premise to get us to wonder and imagine other-worldly situations.
Mixed in with that, his surprise endings successfully leave the audience
feeling duped, but happy. We were looking one way, while the magician
skillfully removes our wristwatch without our noticing. What a clever
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Well, the problem is that his technique for getting us to look the other
direction is, frankly, done on the cheap. To illustrate the point, understand
that supernatural/sci-fi films require at least two storytelling
elements: "suspension of disbelief" and "staying within the circle of
plausible possibilities." That is, "suspension of disbelief" is where an
impossible premise is used as the framework for a story. For example, we
can believe in aliens, or that a child can see dead people, because we
can imagine a fantasy world where that may take place in our mind's eye.
Because we know it's not a true story, which we would "disbelieve", we
instead "suspend" that disbelief in order to keep the fantasy going. And,
as long as everything that happens within that story makes sense,
we're willing to continue playing the game. This is the "circle of plausible
possibilities." If the boy who can see dead people suddenly becomes
an award-winning chef and gets a TV cooking show, we don't like it
because it distracts from where the story was going.
If the story and the characters don't remain consistent with the premise,
we are left unfulfilled.
Let's address how these take place in two of Shyamalan's films,
"The Sixth Sense", and "Signs."
In "Signs", Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an ex-priest who lost his faith
after his wife died in a freak auto accident. When crop circles suddenly
appear around the world, followed by a hostile invasion of aliens, he
begins to wonder about his own faith in God and the meaning of life.
Challenged to face his own demise (and that of his family), he desperately
searches for true signs, purposes to life, anything to help him come to
terms with his situation, and the ultimate meaning of life. Yet, during
the struggle for survival, he pieces together what had appeared to be
unrelated statements or events from his past, enabling him to save his
family and regain his faith in God.
Here, the suspension of disbelief is "aliens attack from outer space." The
circle of plausible possibilities include ways he deals with that, and his
personal search for the meaning of life. Whether he actually saves his
family, or how, is not really important. The real story, and the one
the audience is really watchingis the development of his character.
How does Hess come to terms with his own loss of faith? How does he
reconcile the struggle between logic and faith, the two classic opposites
that challenge most people in their quest for belief in higher powers?
These are universal themes, and we're given a story that promises to tell
us something new. What we are looking for is something that brings
him around to whatever conclusion he's going to come to. Yet, when
we are given the surprise at the end, which suggests that there are no
coincidences, and that everything happens for a reason, and God has a
reason for everything, this premise is presented so unambiguously, so
far-fetched, that it falls outside of the circle of possibilities for
this story line. It's not that it can't be the case, but it detracts
from the story we were being told. All of Hess' objectives are gone.
It's as though God himself spoke to him and said, "it's like this".
All you can say now is, "oh, ok." What happened to the story we were
In "The Sixth Sense", the same thing happens: the suspension of disbelief
involves a boy that can see dead people. The other story involves two
characters with personal struggles: the aforementioned boy and his
relationship with his mother and others in his environment; and a child
psychologist who has to deal with his own inner demons and his failing
relationship with his wife and search for personal meaning. The circle
of possibilities includes all the ways that these people have to face
and deal with these problems. Whatever happens to help them come to
terms psychologically with their searches is fineas long as they come
to discover something about what they're looking for. However, the
surprise ending shows us that none of these issues are even relevant
anymore, so we can toss out all the invested emotions we put into them.
Their stories no longer matter.
In each movie, the endings are surprises because they addressed a simple
"fact" of the backdrophow it is the boy saw the psychologist, or how
god now unambiguously exists. We were surprised not because we didn't see
it coming (even though we didn't), we were surprised because we didn't NEED
to see those stories solved. Sure, it's fun that we did see them solved,
but the movie isn't over till the character's stories are concluded too.
It doesn't matter that we can't predict the ending; what's important is
that all endings tie together.
Compare either of these films with Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho."
Here, we are lead to believe that Norman Bates and his mother live in a hotel
and are killing people, and the surprise at the end shows us that it wasn't
quite what we thought. Yet, the real story was his psychological
profile: why he did what he did, and how other characters were affected by it.
This is good filmmaking, because the surprise also addressed
the characters' issues; we weren't left hanging.
Granted, "complete" filmmaking is harder, since tying things together
effectively requires an extra level of ingenuity that only a true master of
storytelling can accomplish. Shyamala's skill is his portrayal of the human
spirit and character. He gives us three-dimension people, not just
kids in a summer camp about to be murdered. These people have motivations,
ambitions, goals, or losses that they need to come to terms with. He just
needs to learn how to incorporate their issues with his surprise endings,
so that all holes are filled. What makes a story compelling, is the
characters discovering things for themselves, through their own
interpretations of events, and have the conclusion - surprise or not -
come from the results of those learned lessons. Otherwise, we lose the
bonding that we feel for them. Shyamalan's films are good, but not nearly
worth the critical acclaim they are getting.
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