The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan
What exactly happened to M. Night Shyamalan? It is a question audiences and critics have been asking for over a decade now. In the late 1990’s, Shyamalan erupted on screen with The Sixth Sense. This supernatural mystery was incredibly popular, most nobably due to the major twist at the conclusion of the film. His career seemed promising from that point. His next two films, Unbreakable and Signs, were critical commercial successes. Then came The Village, a film that most found rather frustrating, and the downward spiral had begun. From then on, it seems Shyamalan has been unable to recreate the success of his earlier work. Here, we shall explore each of the films and the decline of the quality of the director’s work.
A Promising Start
It would be impossible to discuss Shyamalan and his career without mentioning the impact of The Sixth Sense starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment. The film follows a young boy with a mysterious power. He has the ability to see the undead and communicate with them. At first, the boy is frightened as many would be in a such a situation. However, he comes under the care of a renowned child psychologist. The two learn from one another what the purpose of this gift may be and how it could reveal shocking truths for each of them. The film has a gritty realism combined with a strange ghastly atmosphere. The performances were as haunting as the subject matter. This creates a creepy and memorable film with some genuinely powerful supernatural drama.
However, it is the twist towards the end of the film which is most remembered. It is revealed that the child psychologist was one of the ghosts the boy could commune with. The man simply did not realize that he had passed on. As many ghosts do in fiction, he had unfinished business to attend to before he could move on to the next plane of existence. This twist in the narrative empowered Shyamalan would be what eventually lead to his downfall.
The next film Unbreakable proved to be as well written and original as the first. This film was produced at the beginning of the superhero craze of the 2000’s. However, it took a much more down-to-earth approach. Bruce Willis would return as the lead. He plays a normal man going through a difficult time in his marriage. Following a terrible train crash, he arises to find himself uninjured. Thus begins his path to discovering he may in fact be special and should then use his abilities to help others.
This film flows fluidly but one can easily see the comparison to The Sixth Sense. The two films share many of the same tropes and follow a similar narrative structure. Once again it features the same slow pace, grim themes and a major twist ending. Despite some obvious similarities, the success of the film is that is not trying to duplicate The Sixth Sense in terms of story. The twist isn’t the selling point of the film. It only serves to advance the themes of the narrative and the pivotal point for some well-written characters. Had this been implemented better, perhaps Shyamalan would not have become so overly dependent on the quirky gimmicks and the twists themselves.
Shyamalan Becomes Divisive
The shift to questionable storytelling began with the release of Signs. This was the first big budget thriller for the director, incorporating larger scale events with the more relatable human elements. A preacher has just lost his wife and is struggling with is faith and his ability to keep his family together. Meanwhile, mysterious crop circles are appearing all around the world, signifying an alien invasion. Naturally, this occurs and the family must fight to stay alive. This movie contains some decent moments of drama and genuine tension. Despite this, the hokey nature of the story seems be significantly heightened. The film was riddled with contradictions and weak plot points. The twist itself bordered on parody. With odd performances and over-the-top music, the film seems to be at odds with itself. Is it a terrifying monster movie or a campy B picture? The film only partially succeeded at both and left critics and audiences doubting the director for the first time.
It was the following film, The Village, that critics would give an all-out bashing. The Village would be the first true indicator that the fire may have been gone from this illustrious career. We see the first instance in which the tropes of Shyamalan seemed to suffocate his actual narratives. The Village follows a secluded group of people in the mid-19th century United States. The townspeople can never leave their town due to the possibility of a monster which prevents them from escaping. It is eventually revealed that this village exists in the present day as a type of advanced experiment. This film was heavily criticized for deadpan performances, extremely slow pacing and a completely unsupported twist. Worse still, this film shares many similarities with a young adult novel from a decade earlier. Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix had a set up and plot that followed many of the same patterns. This resulted in court case over copyright infringement. Though the case was dismissed, it brought real questions regarding Shyamalan’s ability to tell more original stories.
A Star Fades
Sadly, the following decade would only reinforce the idea that Shyamalan’s streak had reached its end. Lady in the Water proved to have some elements of creativity. It contained an interesting mythology and some good performances, but was once again bogged down by ridiculous dialogue, pacing issues, and underdeveloped ideas. He followed these with The Happening, in which the protagonists literally flee from toxins in the air. This film does not even contain the twist which Shyamalan seems obligated to provide in each narrative. The plot is considered overly silly and the performances and dialogue reinforces this once again.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin would be his adaptation of the beloved cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This film attempted to condense an entire season of television into a two hour film, with some very problematic casting issues regarding the race of each character. Plotlines were practically skipped over and the performances from virtually every actor were received less than enthusiastically. Fans of the franchise and newcomers attacked the film viciously. It seemed that Shyamalan’s reputation as a director became so frightening for studios that one his most recent projects, After Earth, contained no information of his direction in the advertising. It’s ironic to think that such a director was praised so highly in his early career, has been so stigmatized by his overall film career.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this director’s style is in his most recent film, The Visit. The narrative follows a brother and sister who travel to rural Pennsylvania to stay with their estranged grandparents. This film is a great example of a director who seems at war with himself. Implementing a found footage style of shooting, the narrative has elements of the best of Shyamalan’s early work. The performances from most of the actors were fairly impressive, the potential for human drama was there and the twist was actually made some of logical sense. However, this potential was squandered by the same cheesy dialogue and underdeveloped character arcs that had weakened many of his previous films. This makes it all the more frustrating for fans of his work. Though Shyamalan may have created some cinematic masterpieces early on, his best years may truly be behind him. At one time, Shyamalan was hailed as the next Spielberg. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Being a director is certainly challenging. Especially when one starts with so much promise in one major outing. Shyamalan has had the highest standard to live up to right from the start. In a way, expectations from audiences would automatically be much higher. After all, even as his career has become something of a joke, many people still seem willing to give him a chance. In fact, it may not necessarily be Shyamalan’s directing which has caused his decline in quality. Rather, it may be a case of too much creative control. Many of these films have also been written by the director. Many of his standard tropes seem to be bringing down often well shot and edited films. Shyamalan certainly knows how to create atmosphere and obtain compelling performances from his actors. Perhaps this director take on the works of other script writers. After all, his recent direction of the television series Wayward Pines has been met with great praise. One thing is for certain, this director needs to go back to the drawing board.
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