“Man may have forgotten how to listen.” –Narrator
The Lady in the Water first and foremost, as we’re told, is a fairy tale. The problem afflicting M. Night Shyamalan movies is that people now go into them expecting/anticipating “the twist”. A lot of the reason why his movies have experienced mixed reviews is that the viewer is often promised one kind of movie, but comes out having experienced some thing different. The Sixth Sense wasn’t a horror movie, it was about a boy coming to terms with himself. Signs wasn’t an alien invasion movie, it was the story of a man wrestling with grief and faith. Then Unbreakable and The Village, which brings us to The Lady in the Water. The strength (and some would say weakness) of this movie is that it is so intentionally allegorical, however, the key to deciphering The Lady in the Water is realizing that it purposefully seeks to tell the story of Christ within our cultural context.
“You have to believe that this all makes sense somehow.” –Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti)
The Lady in the Water tells an ancient story, interpreting this story in a (postmodern) cultural context, re-examining this tale by connecting the ancient to the future to find faith. It starts with the Blue World, the spiritual realm home to all manner of beings, namely Narfs. The Narfs are guides, sea nymphs-cum-muses, desperate to impart their knowledge and warnings to vessels (mankind). The natural predator of the Narfs are Scrunts, grass-fleshed creatures that prowl around like roaring lions. Should a Scrunt break the rules that govern the Blue World, they are punished by the Tartutic, essentially angels, though not all that different in appearance than their “fallen” brethren, though more simian. Once a Narf has fulfilled her mission, she is carried off by a giant eagle, the Great Eatlon.
“I think we are linked.” –Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung)
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), once a doctor, spends his time helping those around him in the most mundane of ways, as the superintendent of The Cove apartments. The building is filled with colorful characters, going about the routine of their lives, each allotted their space in The Cove. Enter Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), the tale made flesh. Cleveland believes that he has no purpose, but “all beings have a purpose,” Story corrects. Cleveland personified that, as a vessel, we want to be known, we want to have the journals of our hearts read. No one is ever told who they are, but at some point, someone has to come along to reveal the truth of their natures to them, and the truth about the Story.
“Does man deserve to be saved?” –Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin)
Though the theme of figuring out what is truly important (and who you are) runs through all of Shyamalan’s movies, the viewer is still tempted to play guess the twist. However, the twist reveals itself midway through the movie: that everyone has a part to play. Everyone has a gift to be used to carry out their mission in life. The biggest twist of all? That the weak, the seeming useless, are the ones who play the most important roles.
Even Story herself isn’t above being on a journey. Story comes to give purpose, provide a clarity about the nature of the vessels and the world around them. She wrestles with her own messianic consciousness, coming to terms with her fulfilling her role as a meta-Narf. At one point, the movie didn’t seem to stick to its internal rules (as the Narfs aren’t told of their own importance), however, Story is the fulfillment of the rules.
“He’s hearing the voice of God through a crossword puzzle.” –Anna Ran (Sarita Choudhury)
After all of their ancient-future examination of the story of Story, the residents of The Cove realize life is about seeing God at work in the ordinary. Believing that this is a magic infused world, filled with wonder and mystery; that our every action has meaning and eternal consequence. This world is about finding your purpose and joining in the mission, using your gifts, to be a blessing to one another. Only the arrogance of certainty (in the form of the movie critic, Harry Farber (Bob Balaban)) proves to be one’s spiritual undoing. Even the skeptic, Mr. Leeds, stumbling around trying to find meaning in a meaningless existence, wants “to believe in something other than the awfulness.”
The movie is about finding faith. Sometimes we feel like we have to throw out logic, but rather we, like Cleveland, have to become child-like in order to fully grasp the Story. We are all searching for a Story to provide meaning. Obviously, Story is the Christ figure (the movie revolving around her death, resurrection, and ascension being a very big clue). The Eagle landing on her like the Holy Spirit after Christ’s baptism, since rain, as we are told, is a symbol of purification and rebirth. Her return to her home in the heavens leaves Cleveland only capable of saying “Thank You for saving my life.”
This movie has a spirit of magic about it, not necessarily inherent to it, but because it takes pains to grab us by the collar and tell us how magical it is. Thoroughly explaining its magic in case we don’t get it. M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are intentional to the point of being contrived if not heavy-handed. Often accused of making self-indulgent movies (Exhibit E: he casts himself as the writer whose work may not be understood in his lifetime but will affect major changes in the world), either you track with them or you don’t. The Lady in the Water is full of his quirky sensibilities and humor, trying to operate on a meta-level of self-aware criticism (again, back to the movie critic). More intriguingly, the movie is full of his faith which tries to convey the power and importance of fairy tales and myth, the power of story, to transform lives. His reverence to the idea of story-telling bogs down the movie, bordering on pretentious; but if you can go with the movie maybe you can join in the glee of his child-like wonder.