What’s Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Published 2 years ago by , Updated June 5th, 2013 at 6:57 am,

m night shyamalan after earth career Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

[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

sixth sense osment willis Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in ‘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:

  1. He enjoys playing with – then defying - what he believes to be the audience’s expectations.
  2. 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.



Sam Jackson in Unbreakable Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Samuel L. Jackson in ‘Unbreakable’

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…

Continue to the first “Signs” of trouble…



signs gibson shyamalan Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Mel Gibson and Rory Culkin in ‘Signs’

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:


The Village

village shyamalan howard Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Bryce Dallas Howard in ‘The Village’

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:

  1. People fixated so much on guessing the Twilight Zone-style twist ending that having one at all simply did more harm than good. 
  2. 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

lady in water howard Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Bryce Dallas Howard in ‘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.

Continue to what ‘Happened’ next…


The Happening

happening shyamalan wahlberg Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

John Leguizamo and Mark Wahlberg in ‘The Happening’

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

last airbender shyamalan Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Noah Ringer in ‘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

devil shyamalan Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Bokeem Woodbine and Bojana Novakovic in ‘Devil’

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.)

After Earth Will Jaden Smith Crash Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

Will Smith and Jaden Smith in ‘After Earth’

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.


M. Night Shyamalan2 Whats Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

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.

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  1. I love the depth and imagination of his movies,they all had a message or a lesson, they are all unique and creative. I’m so tired of the cookie cutter movies that require absolutely no thought or imagination when viewing them. Too many box office hits are just spoon feeding us. Shaymalan tells us a story, showing us the worst and the most beautiful/precious moments of life, humanity, nature and well adding in a little magic/hope never hurts. Life can be so short. Limiting your outlook and only seeing our world as black and white is well…just sad. Of all his movies the Happening was my least favourite but personally it was simply some of the acting.The last airbender, I’m a fan of the animated series and i respect his take on it, wanting it to be a more serious film, more authentic. I just believe in this case when something is as loved as the original series is don’t play too much with it. This should have been an opportunity to showcase Avatar the last airbender not try to make adults take it seriously…fans of the show already do and the fact that the cartoon is freakin halarious, has you laughing one minute and contemplating a deeper meaning the next is well one of the biggest reasons i’ve watched it with my kids. I cringe every time anyone talks about M Knight Shaymalans movies, always a negative comment…well I’m a fan and always will be. I’ll go see anything he works on and never feel wanting.

    • I think you were a little too kind on the last airbender. There was nothing about the film that was remotely interesting. Even the special effects seem cheesy and a waste of the ILM crew’s talents…Night sure has a big, stupid, ego.

      • I completely agree with John when it comes to avatar the movie. The series was amazing and was full of personality that made you like the characters while in the movie the downplay the basic ability of benders (the seen where 6 benders lift a 20-40 pound rock and taking 5 minuets of complicated movements to gently float it in the air). I dont think there was one line in the movie were a character said “I feel” or “I like”. there was literally now emotion. it was a poorly paced non-stop action movie that ruined the comedic and fun undertone to the series while still having a plot. So yes Shamalan is a hack when it comes to a real script were emotion and pacing is involved (so every movie).

  2. People just don’t understand The Village. Everybody thinks it’s a Thriller, a horror film, but it’s not. It’s a love story. It’s the same thing with Lady in the Water- it’s based off a story he wrote for his children. It unfolds like a children’s story, and that’s part of the charm. The Happening wasn’t his best film, but it was good enough to be considred a Shyamalan. As for After Earth… there really wasn’t any soul in it. Lately It feels like Shyamalan is listening to the critisism and second guessing himself- he’s doing what the audience wants, not what he wants to do. So the end result is a typical movie that shocks nobody, and the very people who WANTED that start pushing him down again. All I can say is, keep your head up, Night. Don’t listen to what they’re saying. Do what you want to, not what anybody else wants you to.

    • I totally agree with you about The Village and Lady in the Water. I saw those movies knowing little to nothing about them, and they were great. Hard to put in one genre, but great films.

    • Amen! Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. woody…woody…woo….wooo…!!!(Indian language..)

    Tell him to back to India.

    • That is a native american language.

  4. http://theblogfinger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/how-can-mnight-shyamalan-can-reboot-his.html
    Here’s how M Night can reboot his career

  5. It’s called karma. He stole the best parts of a children’s book by popular author Margaret Peterson Haddix to “write” The Village…and the parts of the plot that don’t make sense are the parts he changed and added. He even had the nerve to use the same names of the characters. Basic human belief, no matter what religion…you shouldn’t steal. He’s getting what’s deserved…who knows what else he has plagiarized ?

    • The author, by the way, would’ve been up against. Disney. I had a chance to meet and talk with her. I’m the one who brought it up. She’s incredibly professional, and her career continues to soar.

    • When I saw The Village, I thought it was a blatant rip-off of The Giver which involves the same society telling people not to go in the woods because monsters live in there. only to find out that what really is beyond the woods is a normal present day society

      there are a few things that aren’t the same, but it’s pretty close

      • You must never have read the giver, because not only does it have nothing to do with creatures in the woods, but the plot is completely and totally different.

  6. I am thrilled its not more stupid reality shows. Which are never real. Can’t take another housewife show or stranded somewhere eating bugs (stranded with a camera crew). Of course these shows are probably great for the networks they aren’t paying out much.

  7. I think M Night Shyamalan became his own worst enemy. As one of the posters said, he should have just stayed true to himself instead to trying to make blockbuster hits. I haven’t seen “The village” and “the last Airbender”. I have loved all his earlier movies until “Signs”. People don’t like the ending because it is heavy on spirituality and suspense and refuses to give the typical action-movie climax. I absolutely loved how everything comes full circle for the protagonist and his family through this unusual close encounters.
    I was appalled by how much I hated “The happening” It had only absurdities and no rationality and redeeming factors. The acting and dialogue were horrible.
    I am still a fan of Mr Shyamalan. I hope he makes a suspense thriller that is right up his alley.

  8. In all honesty, despite the fact that Sixth Sense is an awesome concept (and I love movies that make you believe one way and end another), and everything about the movie was well done, there was that big plot problem that ruins the movie. At first you think abouut how awesome it was but then can’t grasp how Willis “didn’t know”.
    Signs was “meh”. A build up that didn’t really have much of an ending. It was ok.
    Didn’t see Lady in the Water but I did like the Village pretty good. My kind of ending.
    I understand The Last Airbender was a kid movie but it was horrible.
    Not as horrible as The Happening. Such a retarded movie idea. How in the world could you pitch this concept to a dog? Walhberg was total crap.
    Night is my kind of storyteller, toying with the mind then revealing what’s really going on. However, you gotta be careful because its usually a hit or miss ending. I’m that way in much of my writing but I myself am flawed just as he is.

  9. I liked The Village, but I agree most of his movies are very bad, there’s no excuse like “people don’t get them” or “is not horror, is for children”. Honestly, Lady in the Water is just lame for example. I never liked Signs, too preachy for me and with a lot of plot holes (aliens have advance technology to travel fastes-than-light in invisible ships and yet they are stopped by a wood door? and they carry no weapons? never they thought in creating fire guns along with their ships? even if you ignore the water thing still not make sense”. The Sitxh Sense and Umbreakable were OK but all other movies of him were really bad. But, anyways, I know is a matter of opinion, as I said, I liked The Village so.

  10. This is perhaps my film of the decade so far. The reasons are too numerous to go into in such a short critique. Surely there have not been too many films that can take you through the range of emotions that the Sixth Sense does. The prime emotion; fear, is a difficult emotion to generate in a modern audience that has seen it all before, but this film succeeds where others fail, praying on your imagination and generating suspense from subtle devices rather than blatant horror.

    It is such a relief that the performances of Willis and the excellent Osment live up to an excellently directed quality storyline. I will be disappointed if the youngster doesn’t receive at least an academy nomination.

    I seldom go to the cinema twice to watch a film, in fact I cannot remember when I have done it before. Tonight I am taking an old friend to see this film as it will be a tragedy if he doesn’t see it on the big screen. He has heard so much about it that he is reluctant to go, as I am when something is over-hyped. Just for a change though, here is a film that lives up to its billing and has you thinking about it for weeks to come. As for the twist at the end? Well it totally disorientated me, my mind spinning back throughout the whole film. A fantastic punchline to my film of the year.

    If you get bored check http://susu.ro

  11. I agree with this review of M. Night’s films and this is probably the best recap I have seen. I am an M. Night Shyamalen fan, not just a Sixth Sense fan. I personally really enjoyed Lady in the Water, Signs and The Village. For me, his work is not the same old Hollywood formula, which I tire of. I am assaulted by the idea that anyone would suggest that this gifted artist “quite already” or any of the other cruel things people say.

    I feel as though M. Night pigeon holed himself with Sixth Sense, however. Let’s face it, that movie was more of an optical illusion than anything else, and there is simply no way to do that twice. To even try is a foolhardy. That people would compare every movie he makes afterward with that, just shows how (sorry) stupid people can be on this stuff.

    I believe that having this kind of super success gave a new and inexperienced director the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, with huge budgets to make another blockbuster and he just wasn’t ready for it. His directorial skill was unrefined, uncertain and inconsistent. I am sure that this “one hit wonder” phenomena also went to his head so that he couldn’t be convinced if he had a bad script or a bad plot. This with millions of dollars at one’s disposal is a bad combination.

    He shot up the ranks and missed the valuable knowledge one gets from the trench work. Collaboration is the best “solution” I have seen. I would hate to see him bow out or otherwise not work on the world stage anymore. That he has at least 4 solid hits says the man can do it, he just needs to know what he did that worked.

  12. Unbreakable was a great movie. It’s pretty sad to see Shymalan fall so low. After watching the happening and the last airbender i almost thought that he was just trolling everyone with bad movies. How can those pieces of garbage be made by the mind behind unbreakable? Or the sixth sense? Some of my favorite movies. I hope that he can get back on track, but honestly looking at the painful mistakes he’s made with these movies it’s hard to see it.

  13. I loved most of M. Night’s movies and I want MORE! I have not seen Airbender yet but now that I know he was involved I’ll watch it. Of all of his movies I like “Signs” the best and I own it and re-watch it from time to time. The Happening was pretty entertaining and I loved “Unbreakable”, I would buy that one if I could find it. I watched Lady in the Lake but frankly I don’t remember much about it, not really a comment on the film, I may have been in a funk when I watched it. I will watch it again. I loved “The Life of Pi” and I can see a bit of his touch even though he only produced and did not direct.
    Keep on making more movies no matter what “they” say! I am a solid fan!

    • He didn’t produce Life of Pi though. He was attached to direct the film a long time ago but then dropped out of it. He’s not involved with the movie whatsoever.

  14. As long as he keeps himself off the screen with his horrendous acting he has a chance. Otherwise if I find out he’s in the credits as a cast member, I’ll make a point NOT to watch it.
    If he had any true friends, they’d tell him to stop screwing up his own work by showing his face in it.

  15. I am still a fan of Shyamalan and always will be. There is one thing no one can argue and that is that he never gives us a boring ending like so many other producers. There is always some kind of twist in his movies. Some of his latest movies have not been up to par with previous hits such as sixth sense, Signs and a few others. The Village was unusual and kept you guessing even though many people may not have liked the end. He takes on projects no one else is even willing to try. I can’t wait until his new mini series hits the screen.

  16. Written by M. Night Shyamalan… Dun Dun Dun

  17. He’s a total hack.