Andrew Niccol frustrates me the same way M. Night Shyamalan frustrates me, but complaining about it raises some real issues about the difference between having your own voice as an artist and being the film world’s equivalent of a one-hit wonder, constantly chasing the one good thing you’ve ever done.
It’s a problem that most artists face. You have one first big commercial success, and then when you try to vary from that, the audience gets fickle. It takes a very special artist to constantly reinvent what they do and still have an audience willing to follow them. Those are the people who build careers of real substance and worth.
And they must make Niccol shake with rage.
I remember reading an early draft of “The Truman Show,” pretty much right after Scott Rudin optioned it. It was still set in NYC, but a big fake NYC that existed inside of a soundstage. A
t that point, Brian De Palma was attached to direct the film. Niccol was originally going to direct it himself, and even went so far as to direct a sequence from it with Gary Oldman playing Truman. There was a lot of heat around Niccol at that point, and I understand why. He was great on the page, and there was real subtext at work in the script. “Gattaca,” while not a favorite film of mine, was obviously a sincere and earnest SF film, and there were more genuine ideas on display in that one film than in 99% of what passes as SF in general.
But it was right around the time I read and reviewed “River Road,” a script he came very close to making in 2004, that I realized Niccol was telling one story, over and over. In each script, he creates a lead character who wants to escape from his situation, and the situation is the hook for the film. And while that’s a fairly universal story shape, simple to hang any number of ideas on, it can’t be the only thing you do over and over, can it?
I didn’t care for “S1mone” or “Lord Of War” at all, but I thought they were at least steps towards telling new stories. And I figured once “River Road” fell apart, that was pretty much that. And then the news stories broke this week about Vincent Cassell, Orlando Bloom, and Olga “Grrrrrrrrowr” Kurylenko all signing on to star in Niccol’s new film, “The Cross.” And as I read the descriptions of the film, it started nagging at me. I mean, I know many of his ideas are similar, but this was too close to be a coincidence.
Sure enough, I’ve now been able to verify that “The Cross” and “River Road” are the same exact film. Like Shyamalan, Niccol is resurrecting a project that was considered dead. When no one in town would buy “The Green Effect” from Shyamalan, he took a step back, tweaked the script, and took it back out as “The Happening.”
That worked out, eh?
Look, I wish him well with the film. I hope it’s not the same script I read, and that he’s solved the issues with it. If not, you can look forward to a film that strains desperately for metaphor, but that eventually just crumbles under the weight of all the supposed importance. And Niccol can look forward to furthering his reputation as a guy with only one story to tell, with an increasingly small audience willing to listen.