Fans of M. Night Shalyman are accustomed to being disappointed in the “Sixth Sense” director’s work. He has, sadly, emerged as a cinematic one-hit wonder. Nevertheless, up until now his sin has primarily been intriguing premises, squandered. Thus he makes the best trailers in the business, though not the best films. But with “Devil,” even the trailer forewarns us that the movie is a stinker.
The underlying premise – five strangers stuck in an elevator, one of whom is Satan, killing the others one by one – is, frankly, dumb. Still, as always, I rushed to the latest Shalyman offering, holding out hope that he will bring back the magic. Kind of like that perpetual sucker Charlie Brown believing that THIS time, Lucy will hold the football in place when he tries to kick it.
We know we’re in trouble right off the bat when Shalyman relies on voice over – the weapon of the weak narrative film maker – to explain the supernatural element. (Just as he did to even poorer effect in his worst movie, “Lady in the Water.”) The proposition that the Devil torments and then personally kills sinners before they go to Hell anyway really doesn’t make much sense. Annoyingly, the narration returns to serve up lame explanations for other, even more illogical aspects of the film’s mythology. For instance, that Lucifer ALSO bumps off completely innocent non-sinners along the way. This seems to be an excuse to beef up the movie’s body count, beyond the doomed passengers.
To make matters worse, these innocents are killed doing incredibly stupid things (Remember kids, water and high-voltage cables don’t mix).
The disparate-strangers-trapped-under-bizarre-circumstances theme has a stale feeling to it, perhaps because it was recycled in so many “Twilight Zone” episodes. (You know, are we all in Hell’s waiting room this week, or are we really toys in a child’s toy chest?) In this case, it’s not helpful that the passengers are all quite unlikable. They’re damned sinners, you’ll recall, so how sympathetic could they be? We don’t root for anyone in particular – we just sit there waiting to see who dies next. Even the mystery angle to this five-little-Indians melodrama fails miserably. Shalyman doesn’t give us a chance to figure out who the demonic culprit is. Instead, he solves the mystery for us with a steady process of elimination, with the choices quickly dwindling before our eyes.
Dramatically, the movie never gets above the ground floor, because the five trapped passengers do almost nothing to try to facilitate their own survival. That role is left to a police detective (ably played by Chris Messina) who follows every logical step as he valiantly tries to save the passengers from their rapidly deteriorating dilemma.
For a change, in this Shalyman movie, his trademark twist ending is actually satisfying, for the first time since “Signs.” But by then, it’s way too late. You wish you’d never stepped aboard this instantly forgettable elevator to mediocrity. My recommendation: when you hear that there’s “room for one more” audience member in this movie, wait for the next one to come along.