The Career of M. Night Shyamalan: To Love or Hate

More divisive than the Health-Care debate, more controversial than immigration reform, more polarizing than the red state/blue state divide is…the relationship moviegoers have with M. Night Shyamalan. Few filmmakers in history provoke such strong emotions by the mere mention of their name – go ahead, try it, ask anyone what their thoughts are on Shyamalan and you’re bound to receive a passionate – and wholly unique – response. That’s right: unique. Love him or hate him, his work provokes passionate opinions, which is far more than can be said about most filmmakers nowadays; whereas directing has become largely generic, Shyamalan is, if nothing else, a true original.

Getting down to it: Shyamalan’s got a new flick, The Last Airbender, opening July 1st, so I thought I’d take you on a guided tour down memory lane. Here’s a recap of Shyamalan’s filmography and my thoughts on each…and please, by all means, feel free to disagree.

Praying with Anger was his first feature—a drama he made while still a film student at NYU. Basically, no one has seen it since its initial token release in 1992, this writer included. Moving on…

Wide Awake (1998)

Although most of the world would get their first taste of M. Night in 1999, in 1998 Shyamalan’s first studio film, Wide Awake, was released. Starring Rosie O’Donnell, Denis Leary and featuring a very young Julia Styles, this "heartwarming" Miramax comedy was a box-office bomb and gave very little indication that the still relatively novice filmmaker named Shayamalan had anything by way of talent to offer filmgoers. It’s not terrible, and it probably proves thought-provoking for 7-year-olds, but if you haven’t seen it…good luck finding it. It’s not exactly in demand.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Just one short year after that underwhelming release, Shyamalan burst onto the cinematic scene with one of the most interesting, original, and frightening motion pictures to come out of Hollywood since…well, frankly since ever. Oh yeah, you could throw "surprising" in there as well. The Sixth Sense caught the world so off-guard in the summer of ’99 that people immediately started hailing Shyamalan as 2nd coming of Hitchcock—a Spielberg weaned wunderkind who could shock you better than anyone since Rod Serling. Earning nearly $700 million worldwide, and nominated for six Academy Awards, The Sixth Sense shouldn’t be written off by revisionists as a momentary fad, or a phenomenon based solely around its carefully constructed twist ending—The Sixth Sense is an American classic that is here to stay, and that will continue to grow in stature long after everyone has become aware of its secrets.

Unbreakable (2000)

Not one to rest on his laurels, Shyamalan got right back to work, and in 2000 released Unbreakable. It was pretty clear from the trailers that Shyamalan was developing a signature style—a somber, slow-burn modern gothic with a supernatural mystery at its core. Unfortunately—thanks in large part to the marketing and the re-casting of Bruce Willis as the leading man—audiences expected a wholesale retread of The Sixth Sense, complete with a mind-bending conclusion. And although there is a significant twist, it doesn’t approximate the magnificently mischievous magic Shyamalan conjured up the last time out—frankly, it never could, nor should it. Herein lies the rub: it’s the unrealistic expectations of the audience that causes such disappointment with Shyamalan’s subsequent efforts, not the work itself. That’s why I’m confident that given enough time, judged on their own merits and absent of hype, many of his films will be rediscovered and celebrated. If my prediction is correct, it will likely be Unbreakable that receives the most praise. A thinking man’s superhero flick, there’s scarcely a special effect to be found in Unbreakable, but Shyamalan’s got much more than action on his mind. In my opinion, his crowning achievement.  

Signs (2002)

Although Unbreakable was successful, it was considered an underperformer when stacked up against the runaway success of The Sixth Sense. However, Shyamalan had a significant financial rebound in 2002 with Signs, thanks to the star-power of a pre-drunken-rage Mel Gibson and a clever ad campaign that played upon the well known mystery of crop circles. For a movie where the premise involves aliens attempting to take over the world, Shyamalan keeps his story remarkably intimate and contained, per his increasingly recognizable style. Signs beautifully exemplifies the two strengths of Shyamalan that naysayers refuse to recognize: his adeptness at shooting for the cut based on pre-visualized storyboards (indicating he’s thought out every shot and edit, unlike so many of today’s directors who burn film and digital tape only to figure it all out later), and his use of metaphor in the storytelling (in other words, the movie is always about more than it’s about). Once again there’s a concluding twist, and although it doesn’t necessarily stand up to rational scrutiny, it’s a twist that makes perfect emotional sense for the central character. Hey, if that kind of thing doesn’t float your boat, that’s fine, but I, for one, am deeply satisfied when the occasional modern filmmaker demonstrates more than a passing interest in his characters.

The Village (2004)

Up until this point, the general consensus, while decidedly mixed, still held that Shyamalan was one of the more interesting voices in film. 2004’s The Village, however, signified the a major turning point: Shyamalan was to become a love-him or hate-him type of artist (or hack). So infuriated were certain audiences with the film’s twist, or lack-of-a-twist (depending on how you want to look at it), that the film’s significant merits were totally disregarded. Its score, for instance, by Shyamalan staple James Newton Howard, managed to be both haunting and lovely.­  Its cinematography is gorgeous by any objective standard. And Shyamalan’s ability to tell a story visually, efficiently, and effectively had grown by leaps and bounds. But just try telling that to someone who "guessed" what the secret behind "those-we-don’t-speak-of" was. In my opinion, although not as strong as his previous three powerhouses, The Village is still an exceptional piece of moviemaking, and an enjoyable ride. 

Lady in the Water (2006)

If The Village planted a seed of doubt in the heads of many of Shyamalan’s staunchest supporters, 2006’s Lady in the Water caused those seeds to sprout and blossom into forests of seething hatred. A pool nymph? Monkey monsters in the trees? A self-referential film critic? M. Night casting himself in the role of the world’s savior? All of this just proved too much, and I concede that for once audiences had a legitimate reason to express their ire. It’s a strange film, filled with flaws, a handful of stilted performances (among some pretty good ones), and a narrative that is not only nonsensical…it’s outright lame. That said, however, there are those who consider this movie something special, and yes, even something pretty great. And I’m proud to say I’m one of those people. Although Shyamalan may lose sight of certain narrative threads, he keeps his eye firmly trained on his central character, this time played by Paul Giamatti (certainly to be counted among the strong performances of the film), and creates an immensely satisfying emotional journey for him, concluding with the final line—"Thank you for saving my life." For my money, a (well earned) sentiment like that is worth a dozen cool twists.

The Happening (2008)

And lastly, we arrive at 2008’s The Happening, which even I’m not going to try and defend. This is one movie that just…perplexes. The acting feels forced, the writing is often laughable, even the score is undistinguished, it’s just a very weird…puzzling movie. I mean…running from the wind? It could have worked, I suppose, but…it really doesn’t. I mean really really doesn’t. I actually saw this film twice in the theatre—on the same day! That’s how baffled I was by what I witnessed. This movie is just…I think I’m at a loss for words. However, I do want to point out that the initial script that went out—and got rejected—by all the major studios was pretty awesome, and it would have made for a much stronger movie than what was eventually shot.

The Last Airbender (2010)

Well, that about wraps it up. Love him or hate him, the man is a cottage industry unto himself, and he’s here to stay. For the record: I am not a Shyamalan apologist—I am a Shyamalan fan, through-and-through, and I’ll be proud to avoid The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and check out The Last Airbender come July 1st. Who’s with me?

About the Author

Travis Baker is a film historian who writes about Halloween costumes over at StarCostumes.com. He can be reached at trvsbaker@gmail.com.

By Travis Baker
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