The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan


Has any filmmaker had a career path that mirrors that of M. Night Shyamalan?  Sure, Orson Welles peaked early (as referenced in Superbad), but unlike Shyamalan, he didn’t go from being the next Spielberg to being a punchline.  I refuse to believe that Shyalaman got lucky or was a talentless hack who tricked audiences with his twist endings; he’s a very intelligent, talented young man whose hubris and insecurities have resulted in a noticeable degression in the quality of his films.  I’d like to think that there’s still some hope for Shyalaman’s career, but once the American public turns against you, it’s nearly impossible to regain your footing.  Let’s take a look at Shyamalan’s rise and fall, after the jump:


Shyalaman made two films, Praying With Anger and Wide Awake, that were released in 1992 and 1998, respectively, but it wasn’t until 1999’s The Sixth Sense that Shyalaman really made his mark.  The Sixth Sense, written and directed by Shyalaman, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  Shyalaman had taken Hollywood by storm and was the new “it” director.  Audiences and critics alike loved The Sixth Sense, which starred Bruce Willis, blended horror and suspense beautifully, and delivered a totally unexpected twist ending.  Perhaps it was the success of The Sixth Sense that led Shyalaman to feature twist endings in his later films.


Up next for Shyalaman was Unbreakable, in which the writer/director was reunited with Bruce Willis.  Personally, I think Unbreakable is Shyalaman’s best film.  There’s a somber tone throughout the movie (which is enhanced quite a bit by Willis’ calm and melancholy demeanor), and Shyalaman clearly did his research before filming.  In fact, many of the shots framed by Shyalaman look like they were taken directly out of the pages of a comic book, and the protagonist’s name – David Dunn – is a perfect superhero alias, a la Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Scott Summers, etc.  Once again, Shyalaman implemented a twist ending, and once again, it was quite effective.  Unbreakable was not as critically acclaimed as The Sixth Sense, but it was a solid follow-up and Shyalaman’s stock in Hollywood continued to rise.


In 2002, Shyalaman gave us Signs, and it’s at this point when the director became somewhat polarizing.  I like Signs; I think a lot of the negative comments regarding the film are retroactive attacks spawning from the public’s more recent dislike and disappointment with Shyalaman.  The biggest complaint – and this one is tough to defend – is the absurdity of aliens traveling across the universe who are somehow unable to open pantry doors or determine that a planet that is 75% covered with a substance that is poisonous to them might not make the best destination.  If you get hung up on these flaws, it’s tough to appreciate the movie’s finer points – notably, the presentation of faith versus coincidence and the way the film was shot.  Up until the end, Shyalaman doesn’t show you the aliens save for quick glimpses, and leaving the appearance of the creatures to the viewers’ imaginations is a far more effective technique than simply showing a hideous-looking alien if you’re going for scares.  Two shots that stand out in particular are the reflection of the alien in the television screen during the movie’s climax and, of course, the video footage (shot by Shyalaman himself) of the alien appearance at the Brazilian kid’s birthday party, which I have to believe is an homage to the famous “Bigfoot” footage.  The ending of Signs wasn’t necessarily a twist, but it was twist-esque, and it’s at this point where critics and audiences started to view Shyalaman as a one-trick pony.  Signs was commercially very successful, but according to most, a huge drop off from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.


While not nearly as implausable as Signs, 2004’s The Village was attacked for being completely unrealistic and far-fetched.  Many were disappointed that the “monsters” in The Village didn’t actually exist, but they failed to appreciate that Shyalaman had in fact created an allegory about fear and the use of fear as a means to control.  Shyalaman’s use of color in The Village is noteworthy, but more importantly – and this is often overlooked – he had succeeded in making a period piece, an extremely challenging feat for any director.  Nevertheless, The Village’s ending was a twist ending and the label of “one-trick pony” for Shyalaman gained considerable legitimacy.  At this point, Shyalaman had yet to make a truly abyssmal film, but his days as the new “it” director were long gone, and the public perception was that his movies were getting worse and worse.


I remember seeing the preview for The Lady in the Water right before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and when the words “A bedtime story by M. Night Shyalaman” appeared on the screen, there was a noticeable, very positive buzz in the packed theater.  Surely, people were still excited about the prospect of another Shyalaman movie.  Unfortunately, The Lady in the Water was universally panned and as much as you may dislike The Village or Signs, it paled in comparison to its predecessors.  There wasn’t much to the story, and despite having a very good cast, Shyalaman’s hubris was front and center throughout this movie.  For one, he cast himself as the writer of a piece that would change the way the world thinks and operates, but even worse was his portrayal of the movie critic character.  Fed up with negative criticism from people less intelligent than himself, Shyalaman took a hard jab at movie critics, pulling no punches and without any semblance of subtlety.  Not that The Lady in the Water would have been a good film sans the movie critic scene, but the inclusion of that scene completely detracted from the story.  Shyalaman should have taken the high road, but instead, his frustration led him to lash out, making him look incredibly arrogant while simultaneously tarnishing his already below-par film.  People HATE The Lady in the Water – and there are plenty of reasons to dislike this movie – but I believe Shyalaman’s holier-than-thou attitude that is associated with this movie helped alienate him from audiences to a degree previously unfathomable.  The Lady in the Water didn’t feature a twist ending, but the movie was already so disappointing that it didn’t matter much.  The sadder news, however, is that after The Lady in the Water, his stock somehow managed to plummet even further.


And then came The Happening.  This 2008 preposterous movie is by far the low point in Shyalaman’s career, and it is simply astounishing to think that this movie -widely considered one of the worst of the year – was made by the same guy who wrote and directed The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.  I am yet to read one positive comment regarding The Happening, and Mark Wahlberg – who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Departed – has been chastised along with Shyalaman for being a part of this awful, awful movie.  You would think that Shyalaman cannot sink any lower, but that’s exactly what I thought after The Lady and the Water.  That said, I still like his earlier films a great deal, and like I stated above, I don’t think he’s talentless.  I think he’s lost, perhaps misguided, and his hubris has played a large part in his career freefall.  I’m rooting for him, and I will be giving his next film, The Last Airbender, an honest chance.  Here’s to hoping Shyalaman can grow as a director and get back to making engaging films.  I just don’t want to get my hopes up too high, and moviegoers have developed such an intense dislike toward Shyamalan that even if he does make another good movie, people will find ways to criticize it.

*For the record, I’m not even going to The Last Airbender or After Earth.   The guy should stick to directing TV episodes of Wayward Pines.

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  1. I like Shyalaman . . . as a director. Perhaps he should leave the writing to someone else, and he should definitely leave the acting to the pros. I think he comes up with cool ideas for stories, but it gets lost in his writing along the way. It is hard to deny that the guy knows how to shoot a great looking film.

  2. You make some good points, but I’ve got problems with him all the way back to The Sixth Sense.

    Shyalaman knows how to shoot a movie. His camera skills, his artistic vision for how a scene should look, is stunning. In all of his movies, he’s got some really spectacular shots. The scene in Ubreakable, where Bruce Willis is standing on the balcony and the escaped convict comes up behind him through the drapes-beautiful.

    Signs, the aforementiond T.V. reflection, and the hand sliding under the door-awesome.

    Even The Happening had a great scene with a jeep crashing into a tree, and a crazy old bitch smashing her head through a window.

    My point is, he knows how to make a GREAT looking film. Maybe he should stick to cinematography or something.

  3. I liked Signs, and didn’t buy the holes everyone tried to punch in it. People live in places like Antactica, where you’d die in a few minutes without shelter etc. We explore the harshest environments to find new places to live, and for resources. Aren’t the aliens in Signs doing the same thing?

    The Village, though. Ug, ack, and gag. I didn’t even bother with Lady in the Water. though I kinda want to watch the Happening trainwreck.

    I might organise a Happening/Spirit double feature.

  4. I actually wasn’t that big of a fan of “The Sixth Sense,” it was well shot and all, but it just felt very dragged out to me. Then again I had been told before the movie started what The Twist was, so that might have changed my outlook on it somewhat. I have to agree with the writer that “Unbreakable” was definitely his best work, it’s also a very re-watchable film, which is not so much true of most of the others on the list. Also I found “The Village” quite a pleasant movie, and beautifully framed, and I completely got the allegory and appreciated it. I don’t get people complaining about the monsters not being real.

    “Signs” though… Ugh. There’s a major difference between the Antarctic and A PLANET THAT HAS SEAS OF ACID! Plus it’s not like they came down in gear to protect them from the water, either, they came down -naked-. You could kill those aliens by SPITTING on them. Or BLEEDING on them. Also, the whole thing of “They want to eat us,” mixed with “Water hurts them,” makes it even worse.

    That’s not even getting into another issue, raised by my step-father as we were watching the movie on Starz, that makes the characters very hard to identify with. It was at about the time when they were down in the basement with the aliens trying to get in and one of the characters (I can’t remember whether it was the one played by Mel Gibson or Joaquin Phoenix) grabbed the pickaxe… and used it to wedge the door shut.

    These aliens were coming to kill the children, for God’s sake. What the hell kind of man doesn’t pick up a weapon the second his child or -any- child for that matter, is under a threat of death? Not right up until the very end did the two adults make an effort to fight back, instead they just ran and ran and ran until they couldn’t run anymore. As my wise, Vietnam vet step-dad said… “F***ing P***ies! You and me would be down there with shotguns and sharp broomhandles, we’d kill every one of those gray motherf***ers who came at us and save the last four rounds.” And don’t give me “They’re Christian, thou shalt not kill!” either, that only applies to our fellow homo-sap, or else Christians wouldn’t eat beef or swat mosquitos.

    In my view you can say it’s well shot and well acted and all that, that’s fine, but don’t try to defend the gaping plot rents. I like some pretty bad movies, but I don’t try to tell people that the flaws in them aren’t actually there.

  5. Couldn’t stand The Sixth Sense. I saw the ending a mile off, way before I guessed the ending of The Others… and I wasn’t even trying; I hate trying to second guess what is going to happen as I invariably get it right and ruin the movie for myself…

    I loved Signs though. I didn’t care about the silliness in the plot. The sci-fi plot was not what it was about for me. It was about a family going through a crisis that shook the very foundations of their lives. The scene around the dinner table bowls me over every single time. It’s so poignant, so perfect and so sad.

    I also loved The Village and The Lady In The Water… I guess my brain just works differently to everyone else’s. That or I’m an idiot XD

  6. i guess i’m one of the only ones that love the happening. i found it hilarious..
    maybe i liked it so much because i went into it thinking it would suck. i read so many bad reviews that i wasn’t even going to try it, but since it has marky mark and john leguizamo (omnom) in it, i watched it thinking i wouldn’t even get 5 mins in. but then i loved it.. i dont know. it was amazing.









  8. I pretty much agree with the article, though I really loved The Village for the same reasons you stated–and this goes for ALL of M.’s films–in that these are not actually about the plot the trailers advertise: they are always deeper, and the plot merely a vehicle for the subtext to play out within. The Sixth Sense = facing fears, the need to fill holes in your life, and etc (I think this was the most obvious of flms). Unbreakable was actually quite existential if you examine the film. Signs is undoubtedly a meditation on guilt, family, and etc, while The Village I never expected to really be like the previews, and was an examination on fear, the inherent evil of humans, and the lengths people will go to to try and block it all out (I actually think the mood and ideas in The Village elevate it to one of my favorite M. films). Lady in the Water got a lot of crap because, like all his other movies, it was advertised as a horror film, when really it was a fairy tale. I mean seriously, it makes a difference. I know it wasn’t a great film, but I still enjoyed it, and the direction and Giamatti’s performance were great. As for The Happening…not as bad as a lot of people say, but it was very uneven and had scenes which were pretty terrible. I think all of the scenes of suicide and violence were some of the most brilliantly filmed scenes of the year (the opening was astounding, as well as the multi-gun suicide). Everything else just kind of fell off the wagon by the end.

    I appreciate that M. has at least kept his trademark sense of subtle humor though, it’s always nice to see that still alive. And as long as Airbender does well financially and gets M. out of his slump creatively, hopefully he will find a single great idea and resurrect himself in the eyes of…well pretty much everyone else. I know he at least has one more brilliant film inside of him, tortuously trying to get out. (And yeah, if he has to, get a screenwriting assistant who understands not to sacrifice M.’s favorite themes and character ideals).

  9. @ vagrant hippo

    Yeah, I think you nailed it in that M’s films – his earlier ones, at least – can be enjoyed on a metaphorical level, particularly The Village.

    I hope he rebounds, because there’s nothing like a great M. Night movie.

    Thanks for reading.

  10. Unfortunately, The Last Airbender is incredibly bad, so you’ll have to wait for his next project to see if he can finally live up to his promise.

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