[Now that M. Night Shyamalan is making headlines again for After Earth, we thought it would be an opportune time to revisit this article - most of which was originally written back when The Last Airbender had opened in theaters - Ed.]
You might feel pity for M. Night Shyamalan, now that a string of poorly-received films has left his artistic reputation in shambles (with critics and many general moviegoers, anyway). Case in point: Sony went out of its way to avoid mentioning his involvement – as the co-screenwriter and director – in the marketing campaign for After Earth; though, that didn’t help to prevent Will & Jaden Smith’s sci-fi survival parable from experiencing a smaller-than-expected opening weekend at the box office.
What factors are to blame for the sharp (and painful) turn around in Shyamalan’s artistic standing, over the past decade? We’ll begin to answer that question by going back further in time, to examine the film that he’s (still) best associated with today – the 1999 ghost drama The Sixth Sense.
The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense is all but the definition of a sleeper hit. It featured Bruce Willis in a non-action role alongside then-unknown child actor Haley Joel Osment and indie actresses Toni Collette and Olivia Williams. Shyamalan had previously written and directed two little-seen films – Praying With Anger and Wide Awake – and had yet to prove that he could deliver a hit at the box office.
How then did The Sixth Sense manage to gross $26.7 million in its first weekend of release? Well, looking back at the film’s original trailer, it was exceptionally well-constructed and made the film appear to be a terse and spooky thriller that is heavy on atmosphere (and well-executed scares):
Besides being well-received critically, The Sixth Sense became a pop sensation that claimed the U.S. box office crown for five consecutive weeks, grossed almost $673 million worldwide, and earned Shyamalan Oscar nods for his writing and directing. However, I remember that there were two things that moviegoers just could not stop discussing: Osment’s performance and – of course – that legendary “twist ending.”
Sixth Sense established some important things about Shyamalan the storyteller, in particular:
- He enjoys playing with – then defying - what he believes to be the audience’s expectations.
- The stories he tells are very much allegorical in nature, above all else.
Cut to the present, and Sixth Sense holds up as a creepy – if, admittedly, kind of ponderous at times – story about people coming to terms with their painful pasts (e.g. “ghosts”) through open communication with one another.
Unfortunately, because the big twist is so well-known nowadays – or, at the least, most first-time viewers know there’s a surprise ending going in – the film struggles to have as much impact as it did upon its original release.
Shyamalan really began to establish his reputation as a secretive filmmaker with his followup to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable. The teaser for the film (which you can watch below) was moody and mysterious – with just some expository dialogue that hinted what the flick was about – and, naturally, moviegoers with the memory of The Sixth Sense fresh on their minds, were intrigued.
Unbreakable was not the same level of hit – critically or financially – as The Sixth Sense; nonetheless, it secured Shyamalan’s place as someone interested in crafting thoughtful, character-oriented allegories through the lens of genre movies. The film has since gained a (semi-)cult following, in part because it is a “superhero movie” that delves deep into the philosophical implications of an inhumanly-powered being (re: destiny, responsibility, etc.) – albeit, fully-grounded in a real-world setting.
There were certain problems that popped up in Unbreakable that began to hint at Shyamalan’s limitations as a filmmaker. Shymalan’s approach remained as personal and deeply-felt as ever, yet his movies were already starting to walk that fine line between compelling storytelling and the cinematic equivalent of a soapbox sermon (which is rarely, if ever, a good thing).
Furthermore, there’s long been disagreement over whether the twist ending is a compelling development – or just an all-too familiar spin on the classic hero/villain dichotomy (one that’s meant to be more profound than it actually is). That debate, of course, is still ongoing today but, moving on…
Signs marked a turning point in Shyamalan’s career in many regards. The alien invasion drama/thriller was proudly headlined by Mel Gibson – talk about a different time – and sold as “M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.” Newsweek infamously dubbed him “The Next Spielberg,” while others compared his talent level to Alfred Hitchcock.
The film grossed $408 million worldwide and – upon its initial release – earned a respectable critical reception; though, nowadays, film buffs in general seem less generous towards Signs than when it originally hit theaters over a decade ago.
Personally, I was never a fan of Signs and – looking back from the present – I can now better explain my problems with the film. Signs marked the first time where Shyamlan’s (sorry to say) tin ear for dialogue started to become quite apparent to me. However, on a more significant level, this was the film where it became clear that Shyamalan’s work had started to become strictly allegorical – which explains why Signs is, nowadays, frequently mocked for its lapses in plot logic (to mention nothing of that infamous climactic plot twist).
On a final note: Signs was also the film where Shyamalan upgraded himself to an important supporting role – and, frankly, his performance speaks for itself (as far as explaining why that’s not a good idea:
If Signs was a practice run, then The Village was the true test of the bankability of Shyamalan’s name. Despite having some acclaimed acting talent attached to the project – Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver – this was a movie whose success really depended on the interest of the moviegoing public in seeing what new twisty tale the Sixth Sense director could come up with. Similarly, the casting of Ron Howard’s daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the lead role was not at all the focus of marketing.
You can’t really blame Shyamalan for the way The Village was sold and marketed – as a mysterious and scare-a-minute thriller – when it’s really a slower allegorical drama – punctuated by creepy moments – that taps into the post-9/11 mindset of fear about the world. However, despite some excellent filmmaking by Shyamalan, the movie does suffer from two issues:
- People fixated so much on guessing the Twilight Zone-style twist ending that having one at all simply did more harm than good.
- Some of the kitschier elements (again, see the questionable dialogue) were beginning to weaken Shymalan’s thought-provoking and thematically-rich storytelling.
However, despite my own personal bias – I’ve long been a Village apologist – the fact remains: this is the film where the tide started to turn against Shyamalan. Sad to say, the director’s ego had begun to rear its ugly head, and that became all the more apparent on his followup to The Village (which was a solid box office success, taking in $256 million worldwide).
Lady in the Water
Shyamalan publicly broke ties with Touchstone Pictures due to creative differences over Lady in the Water (in short, Touchstone heads weren’t keen on the script). He instead decided to work with Warner Bros., which allowed him to have more artistic leeway – for better or (much) worse.
Sadly, that move was seemingly not for the best, as the final result – a quirky piece of contemporary American folklore – ends up being pulled down by its ponderous direction and a script full to the brim with under-cooked metaphors and ideas. (Basically, it’s a fairy tale presented as a sermon, not a sermon presented as a fairy tale.)
Watch the film’s prologue, for an illustration of that:
Sadly, Lady in the Water is an example of Shyamalan getting carried away with his own self-importance in many respects. That includes the aforementioned issues, in addition to a half-baked attempt to examine tradition and innovation in storytelling – with the inclusion of a film critic character (Bob Balaban), who lacks any shred of humanity or imagination and feels like a mean-spririted caricature (Anton Ego from Ratatouille, he ain’t.)
The part of the Lady in the Water story that better reflects Shyamalan’s arrogance getting the best of him was his decision to cast himself as an aspiring novelist – who (no joke) is writing a book that will change the world, but make him a martyr in the process. Clearly, critics weren’t the only ones left unimpressed, seeing how the film barely earned enough worldwide to cover its $70 million budget.
The Happening was a project that certainly got off on the wrong foot. It was originally titled The Green Effect, until word got out that the script was terrible and no major studios wanted to finance this new effort from Shyamalan; in others words, it seemed that Lady in the Water had left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Things began to turn around, once Shyamalan announced he was re-working the script – based on various studios’ feedback – and he later retitled the project The Happening. When the international teaser trailer for the film (see below) was released, it looked like a return to dark and unsettling form for the Sixth Sense director.
The setup was intriguing and early reports were that the film would be a graphic, R-Rated feature in the vein of The Exorcist, with a spooky premise that could’ve been lifted right from a Stephen King best-selling horror novel. What could possibly go wrong? (Knock on wood.)
The Happening does harken back to old-fashioned sci-fi B-movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids, but the script takes a much too kitschy approach. That is easiest to observe in the movie’s (occasionally) flat-out laughable dialogue and ineffective melodramatic plot developments.
Similarly, as a storyteller, Shyamalan hadn’t completely learned his lesson from Lady in the Water; as a result, the film is an uneven balance of heavy-handed moralizing and compelling – but, once again, strictly allegorical – ideas (presented in an eco-horror/thriller context).
So, what’s the final result? The Happening is a movie that practically begs to be viewed with a Rifftrax commentary (note: the following includes some NSFW language):
Surprisingly, The Happening was not a financial bomb. It ended up grossing over $163 million worldwide on a $48 million budget and demonstrated that Shyamalan’s films could still do decent business at the box office – despite being ripped apart by critics.
The Last Airbender
There was a lot of speculation going on prior to the release of this Shyamalan’s film, which was also his first venture into big-budget blockbuster territory, The Last Airbender. Sadly, the Nickelodeon cartoon-inspired flick is anything but a return to quality for Shyamalan. (For an in-depth look at the film, you should read Screen Rant‘s official Last Airbender review.)
The short version? Last Airbender has all the same problems as the Shyamalan movies that came before it – that includes questionable screenwriting choices, soapbox philosophical preaching, and so on – but they’re compound by the filmmaker’s lack of experience at constructing well-executed action sequences and big-budget set pieces.
Our Kofi Outlaw’s predictions that Last Airbender could be the next Transformers 2 turned out to be partly correct, as Shyamalan’s film earned a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – while more-than doubling its $150 million budget worlwide – but a sequel has yet to materialize (and, at this point, is unlikely to in the near future).
Devil/ After Earth
Shymalan did not write the script for Devil – nor did he serve as the director – but the Agatha Christie-style single-setting horror-thriller was based on his original story (and he was a producer on the film). The final result was a flawed, but overall solid and creepy tale that has a strong moral core and emotionally-rich purpose behind the genre storytelling. (Read Screen Rant‘s official Devil review, for a more-detailed analysis of the film.)
The decent final result with Devil suggests that Shyamalan is a storyteller who has a distinct voice that is (still) worth listening to. He seems better off allowing other people to realize his ideas in cinematic form. (That’s not meant to belittle Shyamalan’s talent – it’s just a recommendation that he focus on his strengths as a creative person.)
Frankly, the newly-released After Earth – which Shyamalan co-wrote and directed – does little to nothing to counter the claim that he has a tendency to be his own worst enemy.
In Screen Rant‘s official After Earth review, our Ben Kendrick talks about how the father-son sci-fi survival drama has its fair share of emotionally-potent moments and shows potential for being a far more powerful allegorical work; yet, in the end, the movie is constantly being up-ended by Shyamalan’s (there’s no point in sugar-coating it at this stage) big-budget directorial incompetence.
Is Shyamalan doomed to be known as a hack director the rest of his days? He certainly doesn’t have to be, but it would require him to continue to show humility and a willingness to share his toys with others (so to speak).
It was recommended by our editors – on a recent episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast - that Shyamalan try his hand at something even more collaborative (for his next project). Fortunately, that’s exactly what he’s doing, by teaming with several other writers on the limited television series Wayward Pines.
On that note: do you think there’s any chance that Shyamalan will regain his once-strong artistic reputation in the future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
After Earth is now playing in U.S. theaters.