[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…