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Signs (2002)
This is the movie that, for me, proves that Shyamalan really is a great technical filmmaker (or at least he can be) and not just a solid writer who got lucky once. The staging of scenes and direction of actors in Signs is so good, so tight, so precise and so skillful... it almost gets across the finish line without getting tripped up by how damn silly it is. The genre getting boiled down to the bones and played for somber introspection this time? The alien invasion movie, with Mel Gibson in the Bruce Willis role as a farmer/ex-preacher whose extended wallow in grief over the death of his wife is interrupted by crop circles in his cornfields quickly followed by aliens on his planet.

Night's prior schtick had been to pull way back on a genre's more outlandish or distracting aspects (no sparkly/glowy paranormal effects in Sense, David Dunn never gets a costume in Unbreakable); but here he goes for the full monty with decidedly mixed results. I like the spirit behind the aliens (what we see of them) being straight-up 50s B-movie saucer-monsters, all skinny limbs and slimy skin and sinister claws, but they don't quite jibe with the seething family-in-crisis drama that's the real heart of the piece. Your mileage may vary on the spiritual fatalism moral on which the structure hinges, but it tries my patience more and more as time passes.

The Village (2004)
By the time this film was in production, Night had made three consecutive hits and had garnered a pair of reputations. One of an auteur genius and one of an increasingly closed-off, ego-driven filmmaker who knew he was an auteur genius. Word that Village, a secrecy-laden project about an isolated 19th Century village and its uneasy truce with strange creatures living in the surrounding forest, was making its studio nervous vis-à-vis what they thought of the movie (they allegedly thought it was a disaster waiting to happen) and their powerlessness to tell Night what to do since he'd signed a contract giving him unprecedented creative control in the wake of Sense's success.

I hate this movie.

It's a profoundly dull (although well-shot and acted) slog for about half of its running time, after which it's succession of secrets start to unravel and it becomes increasingly laughable as Night bumps up against the limits of his audience-manipulating abilities yet doesn't seem to notice. And yes, that final twist is as terrible as you've been told. I'm still amazed that Shyamalan found a way to make me hate all of these characters more than I already did, and at the time, I thought this was M. Night hitting bottom. How wrong I was...

Lady in the Water (2006)
The behind the scenes story of The Village painted Shyamalan as an out-of-control, egotistical narcissist, to which he reportedly objected - though not nearly as much as he objected to the horrible reviews from critics who'd been largely eating out of his hand for three films prior. His entirely grownup, not at all worst-fears-confirming reaction? Casting himself as a misunderstood genius whose writing is destined to save the world in a movie where an obnoxious movie critic is killed by a monster after displaying a complete misunderstanding of story structure he'd claimed to be an expert in.

No really, that's the premise of Lady in the Water.

Well, technically the premise is that Paul Giamatti is a sad-sack superintendent who finds a fairytale water nymph in his pool and tries to protect her from roaming wolf-creatures while helping her in her goal of finding and protecting the messianic figure who, yes, Shyamalan plays himself. Village may have seemed like the work of an egotist, but this one plays out closer to delusional.

The Happening (2008)
I reviewed this back when my "work" still came in the form of (now) painfully low-tech YouTube vlogs and its reputation precedes it either way, so there's no need to dwell. This film, which details Mark Whalberg's attempt to survive when The Environment strikes back against humanity with a mysterious force that causes people to commit suicide, is every bit as ridiculous as you've heard... and yet somehow fifty times more boring. The film was a disaster of legendary proportions, effectively ending Night's auteur tenure and driving him toward something he'd previously avoided: Adaptation.

The Last Airbender (2010)
Yes, I reviewed this one as well. Yes, in retrospect I was a little too kind to it. It can't quite touch The Happening or The Village in terms of Shyamalan's biggest duds, but it's a special kind of awful all on its own. Too bad it represents the scuttling of a would-be promising franchise, as otherwise it might've made a fun "so bad it's good" party movie.

It was thought that Airbender would've turned Night's future prospects completely to ash, but he got yet another shot with After Earth. Has he redeemed himself? Click on over to ETTM to find out...

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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