I am still sorting through my feelings for this movie, and probably will for months to come. Consider this the Version 1.0 of the review of this movie. For the life of me, it is challenging to know whether to praise or pan
The good news is that this latest movie by the man from Pondicherry is far better than his last movie, The Village. Moreover, this movie definitely kept me guessing until the last moment. Shyamalan populates the movie with a cast of excellent actors who play rather eccentric, yet strangely plausible characters. Principally the movie revolves around Paul Giamatti (whom you may remember from Sideways). Here Giamatti plays Cleveland Heap, the manager of an apartment complex. The premise of the movie, of course, is laughable, but then this is fantasy. It seems that sea nymphs (or narfs) exist. A sea nymph, apparently, is an aquatic creature like a mermaid, but without the tail. Narfs apparently have an altruistic heart and periodically attempt to help humanity through rough patches. One narf in particular named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who also starred in The Village) ends up in the swimming pool of the apartment complex that Cleveland manages. Investigating the odd disturbance in the pool, Cleveland ends up slipping into it only to be rescued by the narf Story.
The apartment complex is apparently in Philadelphia but it sure does not seem like it. I would have guessed Southern California. As the super Cleveland spends his days unplugging toilets and resolving tenants’ complaints. Through Story, we soon learn that Cleveland is a troubled man, who lost his family in a mass murder. The apartment complex is a microcosm of America with virtually every ethnic group adequately represented. In addition, virtually every social group is represented too. This is actually fertile ground for the hard work that Story and Cleveland have ahead of them. For they have to set in motion a set of events that will eventually save humanity. Allied against Story are beasts from the underworld. What is Story’s mission exactly? It is all unclear for a while, but apparently there is a tenant (played by Shyamalan himself) who will write “The Cookbook”. This book will someday be used as inspiration to pull humanity out of its moral and political morass before, presumably, our species devolves into phytoplankton.
It does not take Cleveland long to realize there is something very odd about Story, who spends the movie either naked, or in one of his long shirts, and who is calmest when holed up in the shower with water running over her. Through the mother of one of his tenants, he learns about the sea nymph legend. He quickly applies it to Story, for whom he starts to feel almost fatherly affection.
Shyamalan generally succeeds in making us suspend disbelief. He does it by using atypical and oddball characters. After each of them has a chance to meet Story, they seem eager to suspend skepticism too and do not seem to mind helping her out. Unfortunately, Story is largely as ignorant of what she is supposed to do to help humanity as the rest of them. Details emerge slowly through the tale conveyed by the mother of Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), one of the tenants. Young-Soon, a brassy, university attending student has to translate the story for Cleveland, often in hysterically funny ways (such as over a cell phone from a nightclub). None of it makes much sense as Cleveland tries to figure out who play roles such as “The Guild” and “The Guardian” from the legend. Somehow, he has to find those in the apartment complex who are meant to play these roles. Even so on the final night when Story must return to the underworld while risking death from a nasty beast that lives in the bushes (but can only be seen in a mirror), it’s touch and go. Mistakes happen, the story is misinterpreted, and roles must switch in a rather dynamic fashion as they try both to return Story to her world, save themselves and, oh, save humanity too. Thanks to the uniformly excellent acting and the truly strange characters running around the apartment complex, you accept that clues can be found in a crossword puzzle or can be read by a kid from the alignment of cereal boxes. Just go with the flow! Shyamalan manages to accomplish this quite nicely.
Still, there are aspects of the movie that are disconcerting and should give you pause. Was Harry Farber (played by Bob Balaban), the ultimate skeptical professor, actually devoured by the beast or not? How did Cleveland manage to hold his breath so long and find the vault under the swimming pool to retrieve the magic mud that Story needed to heal her wounds? (Yes, we do see him breathing air from an upturned glass, but sorry, that is not enough for the several minutes he spends underwater. In addition, you cannot see clearly underwater without a facemask, which he does not wear.) Is it necessary to cut to black so quickly at the end? Maybe this is part of Shyamalan’s film noir, but it does get annoying to leave so many plot points unexplained.
Still, Shyamalan manages to pull off a neat trick. Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings movies spent over nine hours of cinema time showing us the ultimate conflict between good and evil. Shyamalan manages to do it in 110 minutes, yet you feel the same rush of anxiety and emotion that you likely felt as Frodo and Gollum tussled at The Cracks of Doom. For me it was not clear why I cared about some of these characters, who you only get to know tangentially at best. Yet by the end of the movie, I did care about them. And gosh darn it, with the whole future of mankind at stake, I sure wanted Cleveland to pull all the divergent threads altogether and defy the odds stacked against them by the netherworld.
I need to see this movie a few more times to see if I can fully figure it out. Interpreting the movie is as much a puzzle for the viewer as it was a puzzle for the tenants in the movie to help Story fulfill her mission. The movie also walks a fine line with being overbearing, particularly since Shyamalan gave himself the most important part (the man whose words would save humanity). I am sure many reviewers will see the movie as overbearing, overreaching and a bit of a narcissistic trip for Shyamalan. It is nonetheless fine entertainment, and not really violent, just periodically scary. I suspect theater buffs will be arguing over this movie for years. A small set will see it as an ignored landmark film, along the lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
My inclination is to cut Shyamalan a break, because the film sucks you in anyhow, is finely crafted and certainly is entertaining. Therefore, I give it a solid 3.3 on my 4.0 scale. A minority of you will feel like you wasted your money, but most will be glad you went.