It’s been sixteen strange years for M. Night Shyamalan. Let’s all travel back to 1999, when the unknown filmmaker blindsided audiences with The Sixth Sense, a quietly devastating ghost story about a young boy who sees dead people and the heartbroken child psychiatrist trying to save him. The film was lean, understated, and supremely acted by Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Toni Collette as the boy’s mother, and thanks to some crafty camera work throughout, the twist ending left jaws on the floor all across the world.
The Sixth Sense was a sensation. It grabbed six Academy Award nominations, unheard of for a suspense film of its kind, and it catapulted Shyamalan not only to the upper tier of fresh new directors, but to the very top of that mountain. Quentin Tarantino was the other fresh face, but had been around the block by 1999, was old news, and was in between films, so M. Night Shyamalan was anointed the new king of Hollywood.
Fast forward to today, right now, and how far this once-named “Next Spielberg” has fallen. The decline has been sharp, sad, epic. Failure after failure began piling up for Shyamalan, and deservedly so in most cases, all the way to the point where his films barely mentioned his name in press campaigns. No longer was “From Director M. Night Shyamalan” slapped across trailers or posters; his name was kept in the background, secret from audiences who now expected the very worst from him. This decline is incomparable, mainly because of the expectations that came along with The Sixth Sense. But how did M. Night Shyamalan get to this sad place in his career? Let’s back up again, to the aftermath – or afterglow – of The Sixth Sense – and pinpoint what happened, when, and why.
Unbreakable was one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2000; the next M. Night Shyamalan film! What was the twist going to be? The trailers, showcasing Bruce Willis as a man who is the lone survivor of a train crash, were ominous and foreboding, and quite perfect. They gave nothing away, and audiences were foaming at the mouth to see what Shyamalan had up his sleeve for an encore. Only Unbreakable was never intended to be some sort of offspring of The Sixth Sense.
There is a twist involved, sure, but this film is so much more than the final moments audiences were so eager to see. The film left some audience members feeling hollow, as if they had been lied to in some way. This was nowhere near as good as The Sixth Sense, at least for the general public. But fans of comic books and superheroes recognized the brilliance of Shyamalan’s work here. This was a comic book story set in a very real working class Philadelphia, with very honest performances, suspense, and a twist ripped from panels, not meant to shock. No matter what the general public thought of Unbreakable, many consider this (myself included) Shyamalan’s finest hour.
Whatever the case, Shyamalan did what any director looking for a big hit would do: he went to the alien well. With Signs, however, Shyamalan did not make an entry into the Independence Day genre, or a retread of other big, loud invasion films. Instead, he borrowed a little bit of Hitchcock, a little bit of Spielberg, and made a small-scale alien invasion film. Mel Gibson is a father and a former priest, dealing with his two children in the wake of a tragic accident that killed their mother, his wife. His religion has left him, and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) is adrift in his own life, living with them. When the aliens invade, it is through a series of crop circles and news reports, and the building suspense and dread is what makes Signs so effective.
The final reveal of the aliens left audiences, once again, perplexed. And the twist this time around, the aliens dying when they come into contact with water, caused an uproar. Why are these aliens invading a planet that is 70% water?! There have been numerous theories surrounding why, and most validate the film, but that is for another time. Whatever the case may be, Signs was one of the biggest hits of 2002, and it kept Shyamalan atop the mountain.
But then, real trouble began. The Village was released in 2004, and this time the twist was met not with oohs and ahhs, but collective groans. I, for one, appreciate the good qualities of The Village enough to admire it as a whole, twist be damned. It was the first true misstep for Shyamalan, but everyone is allowed a mistake on their directing ledger. I mean, Steven Spielberg directed Always. Big deal, Shyamalan will bounce back in his next film.
Unfortunately, the disdain for The Village became too much to overcome, or at least it did something bad to Shyamalan’s ability to effectively write and direct coherent suspenseful movies. His follow up the The Village was the 2006 fantasy… bed time story… thing… Lady in The Water. The film was derided, dismissed as an example of Shyamalan’s ego that had spun out of control (he wrote himself into the film as a writer who becomes the savior of mankind, how’s that for ego?), and the vitriol was at a fever pitch.
Things got worse.
The Happening was Shyamalan’s next film, a preposterous and overacted pile of garbage about air that makes people kill themselves. Air. That causes mass suicide. Air. Or maybe it was trees. No, I’m pretty sure it was air.
If Lady in The Water was an ego-fueled disaster, The Happening felt like the final blow in the credibility and good will built up in Shyamalan’s corner. And deservedly so, as The Happening is nothing short of an insult to audiences. Gone was Shyamalan’s ability to write soulful and compelling human characters, his ability to create true suspense in its purest form. What was left was Mark Wahlberg whispering and Zooey Deschanel staring into space. Everything about the film felt lazy and uninspired, and it effectively destroyed Shyamalan’s name as a device to sell tickets and fill theaters. From there, until now, his name would be buried.
Following The Happening, Shyamalan was forced to depart from his writing/producing/directing final-cut prowess, and he took on a big-budget tentpole picture, The Last Airbender, as a hired gun. This was not Shyamalan’s forte, as the film was drab and hard to sit through. Maybe he didn’t have much power on the set, but it doesn’t matter, this was the fourth failure in a row. In 2013, Shyamalan once again avoided human drama and traveled to space for After Earth, yet another drab and lifeless genre film starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith as two of the most unlikeable heroes in sci-fi history. While these films made a hefty haul at the box office, relatively speaking, they were awful nonetheless.
And this is where we now sit, on this pile of forgettable garbage, a string of messy disasters. Shyamalan had gone from fresh new ruler of the mountain to the ego-poisoned minion of a molehill in sixteen years. Shyamalan had become a slave to his own devices, crippled by audiences desiring a twist and looking past all the work he did in his films leading up to those final moments. Twists were all anyone cared about. And on top of that, Shyamalan did himself no favors by allowing his own ego to crush his creativity. He felt infallible, as if he could write anything, direct anything, and people would come. The climb out of perdition feels insurmountable from this viewpoint, but give credit to the director, for he is trying again.
Shyamalan is tackling a TV series with Wayward Pines, but what has my interest piqued is the new poster and upcoming trailer for his next feature, The Visit. The director is returning to his roots, to suspense. Now, The Happening was a pure suspense film, or at least an attempt at one, so this may not be as promising as the poster suggests. My hope is that Shyamalan has finally, finally, reeled in his own ego. Perhaps The Visit is something he feels passionately about once again, because you cannot convince me he has been passionate about anything in almost a decade.
I hold out hope for M. Night Shyamalan and The Visit because I know what he is capable of, what kind of films and stories he has told and surely could tell again. Had The Sixth Sense been the only truly great film he made, nobody would even concern themselves with him or care about what he was doing now. But Unbreakable is close to being a masterpiece, Signs an effective and inventive invasion thriller, and The Village is beautiful and has its own merits. Even Lady in The Water looks nice. There are skills in the mind of Shyamalan, but his career has spiraled out of control like a drug addict. My hope is that he has gone to director rehab, taken a good look at his career, and realizes he must truly insert his own passion into his filmmaking once again.
The Visit could be that film, the one that redeems M. Night Shyamalan. At least that’s my hope. Then again, it could just be The Happening, and air could be responsible for murders.