Year of Release: 2010
Date Viewed: July 13th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
According to most pediatricians, the first few years of childhood are the most influential on a person's life. Sometimes I feel that way about the first few minutes of a movie. They can be really cheesy sometimes but I absolutely love an epic opening title sequence with the main credits flashing onto the screen. It's the perfect mood setter. Most of my favorites come from the filmography of Tim Burton. That candy bar assembly line at the beginning of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Amazing. Those aliens causing all sorts of destruction in the Mars Attacks opening? Awesome. And of course who can forget all those vague glimpses of the Batman logo before finally panning out to reveal the full image with Danny Elfman's famous theme playing in the foreground?
Devil has an opening title sequence from that very tradition. The movie begins with a Philadelphia fly-through with the image flipped upside-down. It felt like swinging around with your feet attached to the bottom of an airplane. The dark shadows and haunting music are a good indication of what's in store. It's an attention grabber, an idea I hadn't seen done before and very interesting. But I can't decide if it was a good or bad decision. That same type of dilemma came back several times while watching the rest of the film. There are a lot of interesting ideas here but not all are necessarily good ones.
This movie marks the first of a series of original stories imagined by M. Night Shyalaman that are later scripted and directed by other less prominent filmmakers. Shyalaman's vision of the devil is that of a being that lives and walks among us; often disguised as a mortal. Most of these details are spelled out to us through narration from supporting character Ramirez (Jacob Vargas). All the information came from bedtime stories that his mother used to recite. The building that Ramirez works security for is under a suicide investigation led by Detective Bowden (Chris Messina). While this is happening, five strangers find themselves trapped inside a stalled elevator while it's hanging approximately thirty stories up.
The situation at hand is stressful enough. But things grow out of control when the already paranoid captives encounter deal with random power outages that bring physical harm to one or more of them at a time. Scares evolve into scars. And then comes gruesome murders. As the death toll piles up, Bowden and Ramirez struggle to preserve the remaining victims' sanity; complicated further by Ramirez's own panic. With his mother's stories still impressed in his mind, he is convinced one of the elevator passengers is the devil in disguise and that nobody's presence is part of a coincidence. Everything plays a role in the legendary custom known as the Devil's Meeting where targets are rounded up for psychological torture before the inevitable violent death sentence.
Devil plays safe instead of reaching for the stars. Setting the entire story inside the confines of the elevator would have been the necessary path for becoming a strong psychological thriller. It comes with higher risk but higher reward. The script that came to be splits the story into two points of view. There are the trapped elevator occupants with limited knowledge of the situation and there are the rescuers who are forced to stand by and watch helplessly as the murderer within that limited space kills everyone else off. With a running time of only eighty minutes, it's a burdening challenge on the storytellers. There is a grand idea behind all of the events. It does not receive strong enough support because of the limited time to elaborate on its featured players. Some disappear before anything can be learned about them.
But even if the right time was available, I sense the story's climax would still have a difficult time finding the perfect connection. It's frustrating trying to explain this in spoiler-free context. Devil has a clear idea of what it wants to be but doesn't have enough stepping stones to reach that mountaintop. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that when M. Night Shyamalan envisioned the main concept and presented his rough draft to potential colleagues, the conversation went something like this.
"I have an interesting idea. It could be something special but I can't figure out where it goes from here. Perhaps if the project was handed over to a promising director, he/she can find the missing piece."
A promising director was found. A strong effort was put forth. But the piece is still missing. It's too bad because Devil is ripe for Shyamalan's unorthodox niche. Ramirez's final quote says that if the devil is real, God must be real too. Hey, there's a sequel idea. Maybe there's still time to tie everything into a complete package after all.