What Happened to Director M. Night Shyamalan?

From establishing himself as one of the most promising filmmakers in the game to becoming Hollywood’s punchline, M. Night Shyamalan has become the most polarizing director in recent memory. Many say he peaked too early, some say he’s a one trick pony, and some even claim he got lucky. Whatever the case may be, the prolific Indian-American writer/director wasn’t always the parody his reputation suggests. Just in time for Halloween, let’s analyze the filmography of Mr. Shyamalan.

After his first feature, the low-budgeted drama, “Praying with Anger” debuted in the early 90’s, the NYU grad got his foot in the golden door of Hollywood by helming the comedy, “Wide Awake” in 1998 starring comedians Denis Leary and Rosie O’Donnell. After the movie gained mixed reviews, Shyamalan decided to turn his entire career around and use influences from some of his greatest influences, including Alfred Hitchcock, to create one of the best horror films of the 20th century. That film was 1999’s “The Sixth Sense”.

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Reportedly getting the idea for the story after watching an episode of one of my all-time favorite television shows, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”, Shyamalan produced a dark story about a little boy (Haley Joel Osment) who can communicate with the dead and his relationship with a troubled psychologist (Bruce Willis). The movie was great for a lot of reasons, nice subtleties, superb acting, good writing and the twist ending- that is still talked about to this very day-where SPOILER Bruce Willis discovers he’s been dead all along. The film also contained the famous line “I see dead people” which has made its way onto AFI’s “100 Greatest Movie Quotes”. Due to its massive acclaim, “The Sixth Sense” wound up being a gigantic hit at the box office and nabbed several Academy Award nominations including Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, and yes, Best Director. Soon, Shyamalan was the talk of the cinema world but unfortunately for him, his praise wouldn’t last for very long.

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He wasted little time following up the success with another suspense/thriller entitled “Unbreakable”. Released in 2000, Shyamalan re-teamed with Bruce Willis to tell the story about a man who survives a horrific train crash unscathed. Attempting to come to terms with his seemingly immortality and newfound abilities, he is then stalked by a disabled comic book lover (Samuel L. Jackson) who seeks answers of his own. Personally, this might actually be my favorite my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film and feel it’s a bit underrated. I love the characters, the story, and some of the camera work is just genius. With a budget of $75 million, it made over $240,000M-more than three times its budget-at the box office, keeping Shyamalan’s Hollywood star bright.

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The turning point was on its with the release of “Signs” in 2002. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former priest living on a farm in suburban Pennsylvania with his family. Following the death of his wife, Hess discovers his crops are being tampered with in very peculiar ways, leading him to believe that extraterrestrials are in the area. Utilizing a strong cast and once again, interesting camera techniques, Shyamalan created what at first was a decent film but soon spirals into madness once the god awful looking aliens show up. The movie completely falls apart in its third act and leaves you thinking “what the fuck?” by the end. I don’t hate “Signs” but this clearly was when critics and audiences started to see through Shyamalan’s seemingly shallow filmmaking tactics.

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Things turned ugly with Shyamalan’s fourth effort, 2004’s “The Village”. This was the first M. Night movie that I really didn’t like at all and the first one that critics really took apart. This one’s about a small community in the late 1800’s trying to shield themselves from frightening creatures that roam their land at night. The twist is something off the charts ridiculous. SPOILER so apparently, the picture actually takes place in present day and the village is just sheltered from the rest of the city so that they don’t get caught up in the evil economics of the outside world. The “creatures”? They’re just people in costume used to scare people from going into the woods and ultimately escaping the reserve. Huh?

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A bit of light starts to shine at the end of the tunnel for our friend with his 2006 feature, “Lady in the Water”. Paul Giamatti plays a failed writer turned superintendent for an apartment complex who is frequently visited by a mysterious woman in the building’s pool. With the help of several of its residents, he attempts to solve a series of riddles so that she can safely return to her world. I personally didn’t hate this film but I only saw in once, when it was in theaters. I definitely liked it better than “The Village” though, so take that for what it’s worth. Reviews were mostly negative and unlike his previous efforts, this was Shyamalan’s first commercial failure, only managing to make a whopping $2M at the box office.

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M. Night then attempted his career into overdrive, taking a huge risk with his audience. Up until now, all of Shyamalan’s films, while some absolutely horrifying, were rated PG-13. With his 2008 feature, “The Happening”, he decided to kick things up a notch and produce an R rated horror film. The movie stars Mark Wahlberg as a Philadelphia schoolteacher who tries to flee the city with his family after a deadly poison is suddenly released into the Northeast causing its victims to kill themselves. It’s soon revealed that green plants are giving off the murderous gas, sending the underlying message that green plants are important for the human race’s survival and we should preserve the environment, not pollute it. This movie was marketed all over as M. Night’s first R rated flick which was intriguing because moviegoers wanted see what his mind can produce when unrestricted but the result was unlike anything anybody hoped for. The script is terrible, the acting is hilariously bad (there’s a scene where Wahlberg literally talks to a plant like it’s a human being), and the plot…really…TREES?

Critics and fans laughed this one off and deservingly so. Even Mark Wahlberg has spoken out against the film in recent years. What could our friend do to recover?

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Shyamalan then attempted to broaden his audience even more by making a more kid-friendly film. Based on the popular Nickelodeon-made anime, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, M. Night put his own spin on the series and the result was 2010’s summer adventure, “The Last Airbender” (they couldn’t call it Avatar due to the success of the James Cameron film of the same name). The movie received overwhelmingly negative reviews and sadly enough, one of it’s biggest detractors wasn’t the horrible action and storytelling, it was the blatant racism shown in the casting. Despite never watching the series, I still found the movie to be pretty boring. A lot of my close friends are huge fans of “Avatar” and they agree that the film was pretty much the visual equivalent of watching your mother and your one true love being stampeded by a herd of wild boar.

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Now there’s “Devil”, a 2010 thriller about five strangers stranded on the elevator, one of whom is Satan himself. Now, Shyamalan did not actually direct this film but he’s predominantly featured on the advertising as its producer. The only memorable thing from “Devil” were the several videos that became viral online that showed audiences captivated by the movie’s trailer in theaters then collectively groaning once they see M. Night’s name appear on-screen. Poor guy.

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In the Fall of 2010, during filming of Men In Black III, it was announced that Will Smith had signed on to star in the latest M. Night Shyamalan cinema “classic”. Thinking this was some sort of cruel joke, I just shrugged it off. Well, 18 months passed and I saw that this was no laughing matter. In the summer of 2013, “After Earth” was released. It starred Will Smith as the captain of a spaceship who crashes onto planet earth years after its destruction. While injured, he then has to rely on his son to signal for help. What promising child actor did they cast to play Smith’s hapless creed? His son in real life of course! Now I really, REALLY wanted to like The Karate Kid remake (being such a huge fan of the original) but seriously, Jaden Smith really didn’t do it for me as the lead. With that said, the film was, as expected, heavily panned and pretty sums up what M. Night’s career has become. Columbia Pictures publicly stated that they wanted to hide Shyamalan’s involvement with the film so it could achieve a high gross at the box office, refusing to have his name showed on any of the advertisements in any manner that would catch anyone’s eye. In 14 years, you have gone from being an Oscar nominated director to becoming such a hack that people cringe at the news that your name is attachment in any project?

So you’re probably wondering, how the hell does this guy still get backing from major studios to make his movies? Sadly, despite how bad they get, his films do generally make a nice profit. “After Earth” made over $240 million at the box office, more than $100M more than it’s $130M budget (though that was mostly due to Will Smith’s popularity) and the rest of his pictures, with the exception of Lady in the Water, have made studios richer. M. Night Shyamalan does not have any films in pre-production at this time and that may be for the better. If he would take a hiatus and return to form and churn out films more like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” and less like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender”, then maybe his reputation can be salvaged but as for now:

 

Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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