So, tinyjo and I went to see the Lady In The Water last night. Interestingly (to us, anyway) our opinions were very similar when discussing any given aspect of it, but I ended up rather enjoying it while she just thought it was crap. I suspect that the key to this disagreement is the 'So bad it's good' gene, which I have but she lacks. The last film that polarised us in such a way was Face/Off, a film which is otherwise almost completely disimilar. I guess both films take a simple yet ludicrous central idea and treat it with pride, gusto and more exposition than it can possibly deserve, but don't go to Lady In The Water expecting kick-ass costuming and slow-motion gun battles, or you'll be even more disappointed.
What's it about? A girl who is a Madam Narf (a sort of naiad-cum-muse) being chased by a Scrunt (a wolf made of grass) who is kept in line by the Tartutic (3 evil monkeys). She appears in the swimming pool of an apartment block, and must find a particular writer, inspire him - with a glance - to write a great work, then be carried off home by a giant eagle. What, you may be asking yourself, the fuck? Surely, you may well be thinking, this is oxfordhacker taking stuff out of its rich mythological context to make it seem silly? Nope. There really isn't any context in the film at all.
The plot is told to the main character, at length, as a recounted, translated bed-time story, and it all proves to be thuddingly literal. True, bizarre creatures and arbitrary rules are staples of fairy tales. However, they are also the staples of badly written fantasy. I'd be hard-pushed to come up with a universal rule to separate the one from the other, but I know which category this film fits into. It felt like a Neil Gaiman short story which, through a terrible misunderstanding, was adapted into a film along with the accompanying author's afterword. You end up with a high fantasy plot in a modern urban setting full of quirky, one-note characters; who then they spend all their time telling each other what's going on, what will happen next, and what part they might play in it.
The film feels like it's replete with symbolism, but not to any particular end. (tinyjo describes it as didactic, but again, it's not clear what it's trying to teach us.) The pseudo-mythic beginning suggests that it's about nature versus technology, or maybe masculinity and femininity. But then the film proper kicks in, and seems to be about how art (or belief) can change the world, or why stories are important, or why understanding stories is important, or about knowing yourself and how everyone has a purpose, or it's a examination of how stories themselves work, or I'm reading too much into it. The problem is that the actual plot is so simple, and yet so arbitrary, that I'm tempted to try reading it as an allegory simply because the alternative is that it's not really about anything at all. I may be trying too hard to compensate for the film itself not trying hard enough. Similarly, the characters are so simple and unquestioning, and their dialogue so stilted and heavy-handed, that it seems like they must be cyphers representing something; but it's never really clear what. The exception is the film critic, who seems to be representing humourless killjoy film critics who think they get it but they don't. Perversely, he's the most entertaining and realistic character in the whole mess.
The film is certainly very meta, which I do enjoy when it's done well. That's one of the things that reminded me of Gaiman, watching characters talking about how (and why) they fit into the story that they're living in. It's a potentially dangerous technique to employ, because it draws attention to the plot and characterisation, and if you're going to show off like that you'd better have something that's worth it. It's not a good idea in a simplistic, fairy-tale-style story unless you're doing something clever to subvert the traditional structure. It's a completely fatal idea to use such dialogue as padding for your simplistic, fairy-tale-style story. Nevertheless, that's what M. Knight seems to be doing. Sure, it leads to some entertaining lines, like the film critic complaining about the unrealistic way that people in films always say exactly what they're feeling. In a good film, this could serve both as a joke and a boast about its sophisticated naturalistic dialogue and 'show, don't tell' philosophy. In this film, it's just a laugh at its own expense.
If you don't want to know how disappointing the ending is, skip this paragraph.
If I were of a mind to be charitable, I might suggest that the ending is another clever piece of meta-narrative. Mr. Shyamalan's previous films have, famously, featured twist endings. How clever, then, to make a film in which style, subject and characterisation all hammer home the fact that it's not real, thus telegraphing a fourth-wall shattering twist of stunning audaciousness. Are they all characters attempting to escape the trap of narrative? Is this all about a book somehow forcing someone to write it? Are the characters all archetypal aspects of someone's mind, playing out an internal psychological reflection of some real event or thought process, be it transcendental or mundane? Then, once you're at a peak of anticipation, braced for an ending that's mind-bending enough to redeem the film thus far... the eagle arrives, the nymph is whisked away, and the credits roll. Could this 'no twist' ending be the ultimate twist? Like I say, that would be the charitable interpretation. And it would still be a bit shit.
OK, that's your spoiler done
In conclusion, Lady In The Water is [gloriously*] awful. I would be genuinely intrigued to hear from anyone who's seen it, whether they agree or not. If nothing else, it might help me to shift this vague feeling that I just didn't get it...
* Delete as applicable.