- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

Are you now, or have you ever been, a symbologist? The reason I ask is that the skill might come in handy at the multiplex.

Curiously enough, there have now been two movies this summer with characters who ply the gnostic craft of interpreting signs and symbols. The first, of course, was “The Da Vinci Code,” and the second is in theaters today — “Lady in the Water,” the latest feature from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan.

As far as genre goes, the two films are apples and oranges. Yet both, in their different ways — “Code,” a murder mystery larded with historical arcana, aims for the intellect, while “Lady,” a fairy-tale-like thriller, aims for the spine — urge a truce in the great battles of theology and point toward the sunlit uplands of ecumenicism.

All that can be said of Jesus Christ with any empirical certainty, said Tom Hanks’ Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon at the end of “Code,” is that He was a “human inspiration.” And why, it’s implied, shouldn’t that be enough to get us through the dark nights of the soul?

“Why not, indeed?” Mr. Shyamalan has in effect replied — in seven new-agey feature films, to be more precise.

Mr. Shyamalan’s run of popularity and brand recognition began with 1999’s justly celebrated “The Sixth Sense,” in which a young working-class Philadelphia boy communed with the dead. He has hewed to the same themes of spiritual seeking in each of his movies, starting with the lesser-known “Praying With Anger” (1992) and “Wide Awake” (1998), all the way though “Lady.”

The thread that runs throughout Mr. Shyamalan’s movies, besides his vaunted trick endings, is a nondoctrinal spirituality, an ironically mushy quest for certainty in a world that seems to spiral ever faster into chaos and violence and irrationality. (Wars and rumors of war flicker on TV sets in “Lady.”)

Mr. Shyamalan likes to jolt us with goose-pimply sound designs (as a technical craftsman, he is never better than when his walking corpses and snarling beasts are unseen and breathily anticipated). But, ultimately, he offers us a pair of reassuring arms and a comfortable breast: an ordered universe in which, in the words of the mysterious titular sea nymph of “Lady,” “all beings have a purpose.”

His movies are like prayers that aren’t so much directed at any one deity as thrown against a wall — whatever sticks, sticks.

Mr. Shyamalan’s is essentially a childish worldview in which evil can be overcome by sentiment, by sensitivity to the divine, which both surrounds us and dwells within us.

It can be gnostic: Once he understood his gift and conquered his fear of the unknown, Haley Joel Osment’s “Sixth Sense” character discovered that the souls of the spirit world sought not to do harm, but to seek justice for grievous wrongs committed in the physical realm.

And it can be Manichaean: The perfectly counterpoised universe of “Unbreakable” featured Samuel L. Jackson as a brittle-boned villain who found, at great human cost, his foil, the indestructible doer of good played by Bruce Willis.

“Signs” (2002) played out Mr. Shyamalan’s ersatz teleology to a silly extreme: A battle with extraterrestrial beings banished all skepticism from the mind of Mel Gibson’s embittered former clergyman.

“The Village,” released two years later, signaled a more realistic, if not cynical, perspective. The snorting forest creatures that menaced a 19th-century American township were revealed to be nothing more than a high-concept hoax, a tool for the rather Straussian-seeming town fathers to safeguard from the younger villagers the truth that their existence was actually a painstakingly constructed refuge sealed off from modern-day urban anarchy.

“Lady,” however, finds Mr. Shyamalan grappling once again with the spirit realm. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a chalky-skinned nymph named Story, who emerges mysteriously from the swimming pool of a midrise apartment complex near Philadelphia. She is discovered by Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep, a stuttering superintendent who is concealing a tragic personal past.

Cleveland and Story and other key residents act out a creakily written fairy tale based on the premise that the pure-of-soul beings of a magical water world occasionally try to “reach out” to us benighted land dwellers, who are forever plagued by violence and greed.

Like “Signs” before it, “Lady in the Water” celebrates belief above all else.

Belief in what is never specified; the blanket certainty that, as one character puts it, “some stories are true” is all that’s required of Mr. Shyamalan’s protagonists.

This having-it-every-which-way — call it the Lowest Common Denomination — should irritate believers and nonbelievers alike. For the former, Mr. Shyamalan’s wishy-washiness is essentially a copout. For the latter, he insists that ethics and meaning can be derived only from the mystical or supernatural.

Tellingly, Mr. Shyamalan never requires his characters to make true leaps of faith. He always neatly stacks the deck in favor of some blinding revelation — the stuff of his famous trick endings.

But his revelations never point beyond their own internal dramatic logic.

The gospel according to M. Night Shyamalan is all Road to Damascus and no Calvary.

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