The cynicism of "The Village" has been thrown over in favor of an earnest, occasionally humorous fable about belief in parallel realities and the power of communal faith. As in "Signs," the generic spiritualism doesn't float and, unlike previous projects, there's nothing special about the movie from a craft perspective. Shyamalan has invented a mythology -- concerning a division between the human world and the blue, liquid realm populated by sprites called narfs -- that feels random and cursory, and yet lacks the spontaneous creativity one might associate with making up a children's story. Following an animated preface outlining the genesis of this dual reality, we meet Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the stuttering superintendent at a Philadelphia apartment complex. Cleveland is trying to overcome a secret past by taking care of the eccentric denizens. His angel of redemption is a narf named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) lurking in the bottom of the swimming pool. Stalked by a wolf-like creature, her mission is to bring enlightenment to a chosen individual and then hightail it back to her world (on the wings of an eagle, no less). The apartment dwellers band together to facilitate this awkward ritual. While Giamatti does yeoman's work in his latest Everyman role, the lady herself is a cipher with zero substance or appeal.
The portentous things-that-go-bump-in-the-night narrative boils down to recognizing that the cosmic interconnectedness of all creatures is the path toward meaning and salvation. Adults may not buy this midsummer night's religion lesson (and younger viewers will sometimes get spooked), but the themes are undeniably in vogue. They would have more resonance if Shyamalan showed rather than told us. He tries to make "Lady in the Water" review-proof by humiliating a fatuous movie critic (Bob Balaban). Better talismans against bad notices would be fresh subject matter and refraining from casting himself. In his largest role to date, Shyamalan portrays a prophetic writer. Only the financial success of this effort will determine whether he's ever given free reign to fulfill his potential again. Starring Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Sarita Choudhury, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin and Jared Harris. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. Produced by M. Night Shyamalan and Sam Mercer. A Warner Bros. release. Supernatural drama. Rated PG-13 for some frightening sequences. Running time: 108 min