It’s been one strange career for M. Night (born “Manoj”) Shyamalan. An Indian-American auteur who seemed to come out of nowhere with the surprise 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense (though in truth he’d been building a resume since at least 1992), Shyamalan became the new toast of Hollywood only to see himself become a walking punchline only five years later. Nearly eleven years after that, he still seems to be in the doghouse – a whole generation of moviegoers only know him as a groan-inducing screen credit and the subject of countless parody memes.
In a way, all the piling on feels a bit undeserved. That’s not to say that basically everything the guy has been attached to since 2004 or so hasn’t been bafflingly horrible, it very much has been: Lady in The Water is like a parody of itself. The Happening is one of the stupidest, most incompetent Hollywood films ever to make it to theaters. The Last Airbender is the go-to example of how not to adapt a property to the screen.
And yet, still Shyamalan soldiers on, largely because despite the almost universal scorn that greets them, his films do still tend to make money and demonstrate that there’s still an interesting, talented filmmaker in there somewhere. His latest, After Earth, is the subject of this week’s Escape to The Movies, so it’s as good a time as any to look back on how we got here:
Wide Awake (1995)
Five years before Sixth Sense (but unreleased until 1998), Shyamalan had his first major studio writer/director project with this archetypal (right down to the Rosie O’Donnell supporting role) slice of mid-90s kiddie treacle about a Catholic School kid going through an existential crisis wherein he goes looking for a direct answer from God to help him cope with his grandfather’s death. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s an oddly sterile one. What would come to be M. Night’s auteur hallmarks are mostly present, like the underplayed supernatural elements, slow-burn narrative, minimal characters, and clarifying last-minute reveals, but in uniformly uninvolving ways. Inoffensive, but for completists only.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
After a decade and counting of Night’s name being synonymous with “overrated egomaniacal has-been,” it’s easy to forget just how good The Sixth Sense really was, even without the famous twist that set tongues wagging for the rest of the year. For better or for worse, this film defined Shyamalan’s career from then on out. Is it pretty much just an expanded, extra-melancholy Twilight Zone episode? Yeah, but it’s a damn good one. It has a great, understated performance from Bruce Willis, legitimate starmaking turn from Haley Joel Osment as the boy who “sees dead people,” real scares, real emotion, and real payoff.
Night’s screenplay is a minor miracle in the way it hides it’s mechanics in plain sight, using an intrinsic knowledge of genre conventions and audience expectations (it doesn’t occur to us that it’s strange to not hear Willis’ wife talk about her life in any detail, because decades of genre movies have conditioned us to consider wives and girlfriends nonexistent outside of their relationship to male heroes) to play a devious magic trick. That this film and The Last Airbender could have come from the same mind will be perplexing film students until the end of time.
I still maintain that this is Shyamalan’s most underrated movie, and might still be my favorite of the lot. It’s not quite as perfect in its minimalist genre deconstruction (of superhero movies, this time) as Sense was, and given the returning presence of Bruce Willis the comparisons were both unavoidable and unfavorable.
Willis plays a humble security guard asking questions about his life after inexplicably surviving (without so much as a scratch) a horrific train crash, and Samuel L. Jackson is a comic book-obsessed disabled eccentric who offers a unnerving answer: He (Willis) may be literally indestructible – a real-life Superman who simply never had the opportunity to test himself (or did he?). It’s both a clever mining of superhero tropes and an intriguing “what if?” story, with Jackson giving a decidedly different sort of performance and Willis being especially compelling as a guy who’s so mild-mannered the very idea of his own potential scares him to death. A lot of people held its inability to “live up” to Sense against it at the time, but if you’ve never seen it or haven’t seen it in awhile I’d call it the M. Night movie most worth revisiting.
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.