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 He can be reached at [email protected].

By Travis Baker
Related categories: Movies, Top 10 Movie Lists
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  • moviewizguy

    Many people don’t like Shyamalan’s films because their expectations are waaaay off. The great marketers of Hollywood decide to market his films as horror films to leech off the huge success of “The Sixth Sense.” And what’s better than to make his successive films look like the next “Sixth Sense” when they are completely different films? “Unbreakable” is a superhero movie. “Signs” is about a man regaining his faith back, not some stupid alien invasion. “The Village” is a tragic love story. “Lady in the Water” is a fairy tale. If that film was animated, I bet many people will praise the film for its creativity and imagination. And, lastly, “The Happening” is a B-movie. Thanks, God the marketers aren’t marketing “The Last Airbender” like another horror film.

  • jools

    I’m with you – M night all the way! Whatever the critics say the guy makes great movies which always do well at the box office so obviously people like his movies.

    Love the airbender film -absolutely brilliant! Keep it up M night, we all love ya!

  • In your analysis you mentioned Rod Serling-very appropriate since the famous twist ending of THE SIXTH SENSE is just a rehash of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode called, I believe, THE HITCH HIKER. Shyamalan is average at best.

  • GottaLikeHim??

    I always enjoy Shyamalan’s movies and I think that Travis made a lot of good points. I’m also a fan of movies that really concentrate on character development. This seething hatred for Shyamalan doesn’t hold any merit. I can’t find any evidence that he deserves to be hated from his movies. Even if a movie isn’t what you expect, shouldn’t a person want to let the story reveal itself instead of trying to figure out the end? Where’s the fun in that?

    And since when is an original idea needed in order for a movie to be successful? Remakes constantly make it big — Batman has been made many times and it got rave reviews. Transformers. They made the Hulk twice in two years and neither of the films got as bad a rating as The Last Airbender, yet they relied purely on big names and CG effects. People redo songs all the time, and that never stops them from winning awards. Merely presenting an idea that already exists is not reason enough to discount a film or a director.

    Kung Fu used to be cool, until everyone started doing it. We’ve been relentlessly handed this formula for fighting in every action movie for the past 5 years. Even when it didn’t make any sense I never heard people complaining about it. It is so old, I don’t know why anyone watches anymore. Boring!! Not to mention horrible story lines every time. At least Shyamalan chose to present it in a story like the Last Airbender, where it’s actually central to the entire plot.

    As for the success of the Last Airbender, I think it’s way too early to judge. When I first saw Harry Potter, I thought it was crap. Bad acting, bad story, not scary, I was not impressed. Since then, I’ve become a huge fan. The thing that really holds those movies up was the book series behind them. Movies can only provide short glimpses of the whole story as interpreted by a director, but a really good background story can really enable a series to continue.

    Without any preconceived ideas I saw the Last Airbender and I thought it was good. I look forward to the next one. And I’ve seen the cartoon. It’s just not as easy to create the abilities of the cartoon characters when they’re real people. Even Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon had some cheesy effects, but that movie was loved.

    I don’t know, maybe he’s not the best director out there, but he’s definitely not the worst. At least his movies have some substance. A lot of directors get stuck in a formula, and I think that Shyamalan explores all the boundaries. As he continues to make more movies, I may not hold each movie on a pedestal, but I will enjoy them.

  • Anuraj

    Let’s stop night shyamalan from making movies…lets give him a 1 rating on imdb for his new movie before it is released!

  • Alpha

    I really don’t understand people’s love for M. I do enjoy some movies like The Sixth Sense and Signs. I also do believe there is a major problem in the way his movies are presented in trailers because I expected to watch The Village and be seeing a thriller or horror flick when apparently it’s a tragic love story (I still do not see it but maybe I will watch it again).

    I just finished watching The Last Airbender and was some what disappointed. Maybe it was because I was hoping for some cool elemental fighting, which granted there was some but I was hoping for a little more. The acting was not terrible, not the best for sure but definately not the worst I’ve seen. Story on the other hand left much to be desired. If I had seen the cartoon before this I would probablly understand better but if you’re hoping to gather what is happening from the movie alone you will be let down. A movie should be able to convey the key points of the story (if it’s a book let’s say) and be able to leave out some ideas but not lose integrity along the way. Look at LOTR, even Peter said that he had to leave things out or else it would’ve been a MUCH longer series but he said he specifically focused only on details that conveyed the path The Ring took in the story. So even if you didn’t read the book you could still see this story unfold in front of you and follow along as you would any other.

    From what I see through trailers of other movies from M some of his ideas seem off the charts, at least in a North American market. Perhaps that’s why the majority of the reviews I read about his movies are negative. I can tell sometimes as well the people who enjoy his movies are the type of people who always love obscure things and what not. Nothing against that I just love to be able to dable in all sorts of genres myself.

    Anyways I am looking forward to seeing more of the Airbender series since the premise of the story intrigues me very much.