There are few directors I can think of that have experienced the dizzying highs and maddening lows as M. Night Shyamalan. His career has been a bizarre mish-mash of both masterpieces and pieces of garbage. It’s tough to comprehend how someone capable of delivering such acclaimed films as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable could also deliver painful, almost unwatchable tripe like The Happening and The Last Airbender. As far as filmmakers go, M. Night might be the most disappointing filmmaker in the history of cinema.
I think my cinematic tastes line up with most people on the Shyamalan’s filmography. My first exposure to his work was The Sixth Sense, a movie which quickly became a classic. The film was something of a surprise when it was released in the late summer of 1999. A year that saw all kinds of genre defining films. Some good (The Matrix), some bad (The Phantom Menace), and some groundbreaking (The Blair Witch Project). After an exhausting Summer came this small character driven ghost story from a relatively unknown director and ended up becoming the most talked about film of the year.
You couldn’t go five minutes without someone saying “I see dead people”, or hear conversations about the epic final twist which not only surprised audiences, but made them want to see the movie again to see how deftly this trick was performed. The film propelled Shyamalan to instant mainstream success. Soon he was a household name being compared to hit makers like Spielberg and audiences were eagerly awaiting his next film.
Unbreakable didn’t match the box office success of The Sixth Sense, but it was a very well received movie, hailed by some as the best super hero film made. Once again, audiences were given a very subtle character drama with strong performances as another last minute twist. Many consider Unbreakable to be Shyamalan’s masterpiece.
Next up came Signs. Another massive box office hit that followed the same formula: something epic told on a very small scale. This time it was an Alien invasion and a man who had lost his faith in God. Though Signs was a crowd pleasing hit, a vocal backlash started mounting. People were beginning to poke their fingers into the plot holes and expose the tears. There were many who were wondering if Shyamalan was capable of making a movie that didn’t require some kind of third act twist. Even if the ones he came up with were rather clever.
The tipping point for many was The Village. A film that I actually kind of like. Audiences were tweaked by the twists and some of the absence of logic. But I thought that movie was so different and so bleak for a mainstream summer release. I admired it’s differences, even if some of it was silly. Even as someone who would defend The Village, it wasn’t difficult to see that Shyamalan’s formula was becoming tired. It was the same basic trick being performed again and again. Like watching a street magician who only knew one routine.
After The Village came three very different, but all ultimately disappointing films. Lady in the Water is a film I found to be obtuse, but generally inoffensive junk. The same can’t be said of The Happening which could easily be argued as one of the worst wide release films of the modern era. The Last Airbender was a woeful adaptation that suffered from terrible writing and miserable casting.
The jury is still out After Earth, though intital reports aren’t encouraging (13% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes). It seems like Shyamalan is continuing his creative cratering with films that seem to be such a far cry to his earlier, more successful films. And by “successful”, I’m not just talking about ticket sales. I’m talking about basic entertainment and fundamental film making skills. The Happening and The Last Airbender are train wrecks that lack both cohesion and common sense. They would seem almost excusable if made by some first time filmmakers or someone making a transition from music videos and commercials to feature films. But not from a writer/director who was able to so meticulously construct some classic movies.
M. Night Shyamalan is a disappointment because each subsequent film seems to further prove his creative reserves have been exhausted or that his success was the product of dumb luck. Or maybe he really is just a one trick pony who is unable to make a film that doesn’t rely on third act twists or misdirection. Whether you liked the gimmick or not, his films were infinitely more watchable when he was threading a narrative around a reveal. More traditional storytelling has proved a challenge.
I don’t think people would be so hard on M. Night if he hadn’t made a handful of really enjoyable films. Once again, expectation is dependent on hype. The outrage is partially a product of not being able to comprehend how someone who made so many good films could make so many inept ones. And that, my friends, is disappointing.