It's become a weekly ritual: every Sunday I go to the movies. It gets me away from the computer and drops me right in the middle of someone else's story. I can lose myself for a while and refill the creativity well. Plus, I just like being entertained; storytellers love stories. Some are hits, some are dismal misses, but it's never time wasted.
I admit it, I learn as much from bad movies as I do the good ones. When a movie isn't working for me, I like to sift through my memory banks afterwards to figure out why. Today, it was easy and ultimately fascinating. I walked out of the movie snapping my fingers (and scraping popcorn off my boot).
I'm a big M. Night Shyamalan fan. He won me over with THE SIXTH SENSE and secured my affections with SIGNS and THE VILLAGE. But his latest offerings have been a little thin and it took today's viewing of DEVIL to figure out what's been lost.
DEVIL was decent enough. Really, it was a million miles from awful. But compared to his previous work it was downright anemic. I can see what he's trying to achieve with his body of work, this building of modern mythologies and timeless tales. I have serious mythology love and it's an element I like to incorporate in my own stories so I'm naturally drawn to his work. But I can't help feel that he's concentrating so hard on the plot now that he's forgotten about the core of any great story: its characters.
Characters are story. It's because of them that there's any tale to tell. It's because of them that we care enough to watch or read.
Who can forget Cole, the boy in THE SIXTH SENSE, and his distraught mother, in utter despair because she can't help her son? Or the father who abandoned God in SIGNS, yet never loses faith in his own family? And the blind girl in THE VILLAGE who will do anything--anything--to save the boy she loves? I was invested in every last one of them. I sat on the edge of the theater's musty seats willing them to prevail because I cared.
Yet in THE DEVIL we have...what do we have? A group of people in an elevator, each of them guilty of some bad behavior or crime. A cop whose family was killed in a hit-and-run. A security guard whose mother told him a childhood story about the devil coming to earth to punish sinners. By all rights, the cop's plight should have induced some empathy, but I just never connected. Too many scenes involved him flirting with the forensics girl and we're just told that he's recovering from a serious drinking problem. Not exactly a character at the end of that proverbial rope. Nothing like Cole, nothing like Mel Gibson's former priest, or the girl hellbent on her sweetheart's survival.
Instead of empathy I had meh-pathy.
It wasn't until the climax that I developed sympathy for one of the characters trapped in the elevator. But by then it was too late: I already didn't care.
To really love a story, I have to care. Either that or be so entertained by what's going on that I don't care that I don't care.
So, what I took away from DEVIL was this: As a writer, it's my job to make the reader care about my characters as soon as possible. It doesn't matter how cool or twisty my plot is, if the reader doesn't give a damn about my characters then I've failed. Ideas are nothing without life breathed into them. They just sit flat on the screen or page unless interesting people live and love and lust and burn and ache and suffer in them.
I hope M. Night Shyamalan figures that out, because he's really one hell of a storyteller.