A single brilliant achievement (The Sixth Sense) bought M. Night Shyamalan a career's worth of ill-advised jurisdiction over the content of his films. With Lady in the Water, such self-absorption finally became impossible to tolerate. That point might logically have been reached with The Village, the paean to bloated mysticism that preceded this one. Except Warner Bros. clearly didn't learn the lesson that caused the ugly separation between Disney and Shyamalan during pre-production, allowing him the same vainglorious leeway this time out, with even more disastrous results.
It's difficult to find the best entry point to criticize Lady in the Water, because ludicrousness oozes from its every pore. But as good a place as any is Shyamalan's usage of Bryce Dallas Howard, his new muse (taking the baton from Bruce Willis), who also helped deaden The Village. Playing a mystical creature called a narf, who emerges from the pool in a Philadelphia apartment complex, Howard spends most of the movie hugging her knees and looking forlorn. Such passivity makes it impossible to care about her character's plight -- namely, that she's being hunted by werewolf creatures called scrunts. Since Shyamalan's script isn't prepared to explain any of this, the audience hopes the mere presence of Paul Giamatti will bring some sense to the proceedings. But there's not much the talented actor can do with a scene in which Shyamalan has him awkwardly relaying fantastical nonsense back and forth between an old Korean woman and her granddaughter, who's translating on the other end of a phone line. If Shyamalan's only sin were a muddled story, that would be one thing. He does, after all, retain the basic visual flair that's common to his films. But he also casts himself as a writer whose work will one day save humanity. How this relates to narfs and scrunts is unclear, but as an indicator of the director's unwarranted messianic self-image, it's crystal.