“Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in the world. To not know why you’re here. That’s just an awful feeling.”
So I finally got around to watching the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, I had nearly forgotten that yes, once many years ago the man could write and direct…in light of The Happening and The Last Airbender it isn’t hard to see how I could have forgotten this. I started to make notes for a blog only to realize that there were more themes than I could deal with in a single blog. So I’m going to try and break this down by movie. I’m going to go chronologically, since I do see him building thematically upon the messages of the previous movies.
But before I get into the details of the films I want to explain why I bring up these films, because, hasn’t everyone seen them? With the previous movies I mentioned they were clearly not well received initially so someone could have easily missed them–but we’ve all seen Shyamalan’s movies haven’t we? Yes we’ve all seen them, but every time I hear people discuss them, they discuss them only as horror or suspense movies (maybe occasionally discuss Shyamalan’s skill as a director, or lack thereof with the recent films). People seem to have missed that every one of these movies have such a strong emphasis on theme they border on being nothing more than pure allegory for deeper nature of reality. So I discuss these movies, because I feel many (not all, but many) people have missed the actual point of the movies themselves.
The first two movies of Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, give us one of the strongest themes that appear in almost all of his movies: That there is a higher order to universe.
What do I mean by a higher order? That nothing happens by chance, that every piece, every event, every person is put in a certain place at a certain time to do certain things. That each and every one of us is born to fulfill a purpose; destiny if you will. Now fate does not exist, and you have the choice to ignore that purpose, but you won’t learn anything by trying to escape that destiny and you certainly won’t be happy. But even if you have free will to not follow your purpose, the universe is certainly going to keep trying to remind you of your purpose…and only a fool doesn’t listen.
We see this in The Sixth Sense with both of our lead characters. Bruce Willis’s character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, knows that his purpose is to help children, but he literally cannot rest unless he helps the one child he could not, hence his inability to cross over until he has done his job. This is made all too clear in the first scene when Crowe’s wife points out his gift with children and how she loves this gift in him, even though it means that she is put second in his life behind the children he helps. This is why his spirit is literally drawn to Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole. He had failed to help a child with the same problem and needed to make up for that failure. And Cole has been given a gift too, the sixth sense to see the dead, and he is miserable while he tries to hide from it and as we see quite well adjusted when he embraces it.
“This morning was the first morning that I can remember that I opened my eyes and didn’t feel sadness.”
But much of this theme is lost in all the trappings of a horror movie.
Which, is why this same theme is brought more into focus in Shyamalan’s second movie, Unbreakable. Both main characters do not know their place in the world and do not feel comfortable in their lives because they do know now their place and do not live there. And through this movie Shyamalan makes several points about the higher order of the universe in giving everyone a purpose. The most obvious is of course the one found in our hero played again by Bruce Willis, a superhero who doesn’t know what he is. But once he finds his calling, that he has been given beyond normal strength, endurance and psychic abilities for the purpose of helping others, he finds happiness in his life by pursuing the destiny set out for him: to help people.
But Shyamalan represents this higher order more than in just a single man finding his purpose. I think it is not coincidence that Willis’s character embraces his calling first in a train station. What’s so important about a train station? A train station if a favorite example of economist in showing that just because something appears chaotic it does not mean it is chaotic. As the analogy goes, hundreds of people are going in and out, changing trains, meeting people; trains go in and out at what to a casual observer might appear random. But even though there is no discernible order on a first glance, each person is moving in a very determined and organized way. Each train goes in and out at scheduled time to meet other scheduled times. Thousands upon thousands of plans, each rational and done with purpose–the very definition of ordered. It just appears chaotic because we can’t see the whole plan. This in turn is easily expanded to the greater sphere of the world. It appears chaotic and random, but there is planning and purpose and meaning behind everything. Or the metaphor can be taken down to an individual life where things seem to happen for no reason or without meaning. But nothing happens in any our lives without meaning, purpose, and planning. There is a higher order, a plan in all things.
The last point which is also often ignored in Unbreakable is that just because you have a purpose in life it does not mean you do not have free will. This is not only shown through the personal problems and unhappiness of Bruce Willis’s character when he does not live up to his purpose, but it also is shown in the Samuel L. Jackson character. Jackson’s character is a man who is the very opposite of the superhero, weak, low endurance, victim to all of life’s suffering has the purpose of showing Willis that he is a superhero. But here’s where free will comes in–as Jackson’s character sees life reflected in comic books and comic books reflected in life, he sees himself as the opposite of the hero, as the villain and as such is more than willing to kill hundreds of people to find his superhero. He could have just as easily seen himself in the role of mentor (the Prof X’s and Alfred Pennyworths that litter the field of comic books) and still fulfilled his purpose. But he chose to cast himself as the villain. Just as many of us can chose to do things that are not in our best interest. Even though there is a higher order doesn’t mean we do not have free will.
These themes do reoccur in the later Shyamalan films (even that waste of film called the Last Airbender) but they are built upon with even deeper and more important themes.