It’s funny how much your expectations influence how much you like or dislike a movie. I’m often disappointed by long awaited films, Star Wars: Episode I being the typical example. Decades of waiting and an unprecidented pre-release hype served only to elevate expectations for the film to unreachable heights. So when the time came, meesa not so impressed. I enjoyed the film and I don’t think it was that bad, but my expecations far outweighed the experience.
Conversely, when I go to watch a movie I think will stink, I’m often pleasantly surprised. Sometimes these movies are bad, but I thought they would be so much worse than they were that I ended up enjoying them. A recent example of this was I, Robot. As an avid Isaac Asimov fan, I was appalled by the previews for the film, which featured legions of apparently rebelling CGI robots, and naturally thought it would be stupifyingly bad as such events were antithetical to Asimov’s nuanced robot stories. Of course, I went to see it, and about halfway through, I was surprised to find that I was enjoying myself. It contains a few mentions to the three laws, positronics, and the name Susan Calvin is used for one of the main characters, but other than those minor details, the story doesn’t even begin to resemble anything out of Asimov, so I was able to disassociate the two and enjoy the film on its own merits. And it was enjoyable.
Of course, I became aware of this phenomenon a long time ago, and have always tried to learn as little as possible about movies before they come out as I can. I used to read up on all the movie news and look forward to tons of movies, but I found that going in with a clean slate is the best way to see a film. So I tend to shy away from reading reviews, though I will glance at the star rating of a few critics I know and respect. (Obviously it is not a perfectly clean slate, but you get the point.)
Earlier this week, I realized that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village was being released, and made plans to see it. Shyamalan, the writer, director, and producer of such films as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, has become known for the surprise ending, where some fact is revealed which totally changes the perspective of everything that came before it. This is unfortunate, because the twists and turns of a story are less effective if we’re expecting them. What’s more, if we know it’s coming, we wrack our brains trying to figure out what the surprise will be, hypothesizing several different versions of the story in our head, one of which is bound to be accurate. I’ve never been that impressed with Shyamalan, but he has always produced solid films that were entertaining enough. There are often little absudities or plot holes, but never enough to completely drain my goodwill dry (though Signs came awfully close). I think he’ll mature into a better filmmaker as time goes on.
The Village has it’s share of twists and turns, but of course, we expect them and so they really don’t come as any surprise (and, to be honest, Shyamalan layed on the hints pretty thickly). Fortunately, knowing what is coming doesn’t completely destroy the film, as it would in some of his other films. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers by speaking in generalities, but if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to skip down to the next paragraph (I don’t think I ruined anything, but better safe than sorry). Shyamalan has always relied more on brooding atmosphere and building tension than on gratuitous action and gore, and The Village is no exception. Once again, he does resort to the use of “Boo!” moments, something that has always rubbed me the wrong way in his films, but I’m beginning to come around. He has become quite adept at employing that device, even if it is a cheap thrill. He must realize it, because at one point I think he deliberately eschews the “Boo!” moment in favor of a more meticulous and subtle approach. There are several instances of masterful staging in the film, which is part of why knowing the twists ahead of time doesn’t ruin the film.
Now I was looking forward to this film, but as I mentioned before, I’ve never been blown away by Shyamalan (with the possible exception of Unbreakable, which I still think is the best of his films) so I didn’t have tremendously high expectations. I expected a well done, but not brilliant, film. On Friday, I checked out Ebert’s rating and glanced at Rotten Tomatoes, both of which served to further deflate my expectations. By the time I saw the film, I was expecting a real dud and was pleasantly surprised to find another solid effort from Shyamalan. It’s not for everybody, and those who are expecting another bombshell ending will be disappointed, but that doesn’t matter much in my opinion. The movie is what it is, and I judge it on its own merits, not on inflated expectations of twist endings and shocking revelations.
Would I have enjoyed it as much if I had been expecting something more out of it? Probably not, and there’s the rub. Does it matter? That is a difficult question to answer. No matter how you slice it, what you expect of a film forces a point of reference. When you see the film, you judge it based on that. So now the question becomes, is it right to intentially force the point of reference low, so as to make sure you enjoy the movie? That too is a difficult question to answer. For my money, it is to some extent advisable to keep a check on high expectations, but I suppose you could get carried away with it. In any case, I enjoyed The Village and I look forward to Shyamalan’s next film, albeit with a wary sense of trepidation.