Success or Failure: M. Night Shyamalan
Warning: May contain spoilers for any and all M. Night Shyamalan films
Once upon a time I decided to add a feature to my website called Success or Failure, whereby I would take a look at either r director’s/actor’s filmography, a more-than-three-movie franchise, a specific sub-genre of film or any group of films that have something enough in common and asking the question afterwards: was that particular group an overall success or a failure?
As a little introduction, my reviews are based between 1* and 5*, with every quarter star in-between, so after all the films had been watched and reviewed an average was tallied based on these scores with the defining bar of success being 3* (the middle point between high and low). Any higher: success. Any lower: failure.
So, when it came to thinking about which director, actor, sub-genre or the like that needed this extensive evaluation one man immediately sprung to mind for his sheer inconsistent directorial career: M. Night Shyamalan. I’d seen about half of his films prior to this and I liked some and hated some and that intrigued me; a man with such a varying filmography (a man whose highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes stands at 85% but whose lowest is as far down as just 6%), who has made films nominated by the Oscars (for the best in film) and the Razzies (the worst).
It all started off with complete mediocrity for a young M. Night Shyamalan with his debut film, Praying with Anger (* * rated by me), and his second theatrical release, Wide Awake (* * ¼), are often forgotten about because they’re so forgetful. Praying with Anger is the story of Dev (played by M. Night Shyamalan) who is sent to India from America for a year but struggles to adapt to the Indian traditions having come from America while Wide Awake focuses on Joshua (Joseph Cross) looking for God to ensure his grandfather, who had recently deceased, was okay in the afterlife. Both of these films are moving dramas in their own right but nothing special or noteworthy comes from the pair. Each has flashing moments that unveiled the star that was inside Shyamalan but you had to look deep, deep into the film to be able to find it (and nothing in these films alerted us to his tendency to prefer the horror genre). Forgetful, mediocre and actually quite boring, it’s no surprise to see people refer to The Sixth Sense (* * * ¾) as his debut. Because The Sixth Sense really was the debut of the M. Night Shyamalan we know. Not a man writing emotionally-charged journeys of acceptance in a new culture or a heart-warming, family-friendly, child comedy about a lad looking for religion.
The Sixth Sense blew audiences away with its dramatic twist ending (that Bruce Willis’ character, Malcolm, is in-fact dead throughout the film) with an extremely clever build-up and very solid acting throughout. This was Shyamalan’s first foray into horror and fans of the genre are extremely thankful for it. Nominated for six Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing, although it didn’t take any nominations to victories) and being the aforementioned highest Rotten Tomatoes rated film, this was an extremely successful way to begin your career in your genre.
Two years later M. Night Shyamalan returned with another film, Unbreakable (* * * ½), about David (Bruce Willis) and Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) who both have contrasting body dysfunctions (David is unbreakable whereas Mr. Glass breaks all too easily). While on the surface it’s a drama about David’s coming to terms with the fact he may be unbreakable and the effect it’s having on his family, it is very much a superhero origins film, and, as far as they go, this may be one of my favourites. The build-up is great, the characters are well fleshed out and the acting is solid. I do with the ending was a little more akin to superhero films, rather than a pretty lacklustre twist that Mr. Glass is the villain of the piece and caused the train crash which ultimately brought David’s indestructability to life (how had he survived all those years without realising he couldn’t break?), and that David only really saves one family from a crazy guy in a very short scene. But, still impressive. As was Signs (* * * ½), his return to the horror genre about a farmhouse and its four residents being a main location for an alien attack. As noted on my review it’s a genre that’s been done to death but this still feels unique. It’s not a great film and it is one of the earliest signs (no pun intended) that M. Night Shyamalan’s career was headed downwards (just listen to the dialogue from the children and you’ll see what I mean, plus why would aliens stay so long on Earth if they’re weak to water or why would they even land on Earth in the first place . . . we have a lot of water). I still found it really compelling with great acting, but it certainly has its issues and began a decade-long trend of poorly released films (Signs at 74% was M. Night Shyamalan’s last 50%+ film on Rotten Tomatoes until 2015’s The Visit (* * * ¼) which scored 65%, a run of five films).
The first of these films was The Village (* * ½), a completely mis-marketed film with a twist that felt forced rather than natural, which, when combined, gave The Village some horrendous reviews upon its release. Billed as a creature-feature set in the late 19th-century, fans, myself included, were tremendously disappointed to find out it was actually a period romance that ultimately wasn’t set in the late 19th-century and had no monster. The story itself actually isn’t terrible, but when it builds up to a monster’s reveal for so long only to reveal the townspeople actually dress up late at night to scare people to remain in their community it ruins the whole experience, regardless of how solid it was until that point.
For the most part of M. Night Shyamalan’s career his films have either been really good (so far we’ve seen The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs and Split (* * * ½) to come) or really bad (we’ve seen Praying with Anger, Wide Awake and The Village with The Last Airbender (* ½) and After Earth (* ½) still to come) but right in the middle are a couple of films that defy the boundaries of either category. The first of these was Lady in the Water (* *), a spin on a fairy-tale M. Night Shyamalan reportedly told his children at night so the intention was clearly there but the execution is awful. However, a child predicts the future of an alien race through cereal boxes. The second of this pairing is The Happening (* ¾), proof that an Oscar-nominated actor, Mark Wahlberg, can still produce an awful performance. In this film the trees or the plants were killing humans via a toxin but instead of being this super-serious film about our destruction of the planet, it’s a hilarious film with bizarre acting and some bizarre writing. These films are bad in the traditional sense of the word, but Chris Stuckmann (a YouTube film reviewer) has coined a phrase, Hilariocity, that sums up these films perfectly: films that are such an atrocity that they become hilarious by nature. And if you cannot laugh at a young child reading prophecies through cereal boxes or Mark Wahlberg’s and Zoey Deschanel’s acting then I’m afraid I have to tell you you may be a bit dead inside. 😊
A lot of Shyamalan’s films are generally released in pairs (with regards to their quality): Praying with Anger and Wide Awake are the anonymous duo; The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are the critical successes; Signs and The Village are where Shyamalan’s faults began showing and Lady in the Water and The Happening are the hilariously terrible films but following those were easily the worst pairing of films: The Last Airbender and After Earth. Both of these films are just bad. Praying with Anger and Wide Awake are mediocre but there’s clear promise within them, but these two films have barely anything noteworthy. Maybe After Earth has a nice visual setting and The Last Airbender’s soundtrack isn’t too bad, but both have shockingly poor writing and a terrible plot. The Last Airbender was an anime adaptation that switched the ethnicities around (villains were white but now the heroes are white) and After Earth was 90-minutes of Jaden Smith talking to his dad while escaping from birds and lions. Both boring, both deserving of their Razzie nomination for Worst Picture, both made the mere name of M. Night Shyamalan a joke.
But then came The Visit.
It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination (very rarely are found-footage films truly great), but there’s a great twist and a solid film. It’s kind of not part of the duo releases (if his upcoming release, Glass, is paired with Split due to their shared story) and often is praised more so than it deserves because it ended that tradition of Shyamalan’s films being a laughing stock. Release this in The Village’s place and it could have easily been forgotten about or mocked due to its lesser-quality than the three prior, but release it after Shyamalan’s lowest point and suddenly people like it because Shyamalan isn’t terrible anymore. But while I don’t buy into the argument that The Visit marked a return to form for Shyamalan, I certainly believe Split did that. One of the most unique twists in all of his films, that it’s a successor to Unbreakable, with great acting and a solid story. It’s plagued with some awful camera work (Shyamalan couldn’t get it all right, but he got enough) and there’s a few other nit-picks, but overall Split is a tremendously solid film, and one that has me eagerly awaiting Glass, despite Shyamalan’s crooked history with anticipated releases.
So, the big question, is M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography a success or a failure?
Unfortunately, it’s a failure.
He didn’t stand a chance, really. With the majority needing an average above three-stars he just had too many films not good enough (or just downright poor) so even his few major hits couldn’t drag the overall bunch over the line. Obviously his filmography is not complete and there is always the potential for another Split or The Sixth Sense to come along, but so often has M. Night Shyamalan proved . . . there’s always another The Village or The Last Airbender in his locker.