There is not a filmmaker in Hollywood that is so widely admired and so thoroughly loathed as M. Night Shyamalan. In the early 2000’s he was considered to be one of the most prominent and influential emerging filmmakers of our times, yet, with the passing of a decade, he’s instead become one of the most disappointing.
Debuting in 1992 with the film Praying with Anger, Shyamalan has spent the better portion of his career directing, writing and producing his own work. This wouldn’t be so problematic if he had seen success after success, but he has witnessed the opposite as the years have gone on.
What he is greatly known for though, is his reliability in delivering twists in most of his films, an element that has essentially become a defining feature of his work.
The Sixth Sense (1999) is a great watch, although it’s taken a fair beating due to its iconic status in pop culture. While the film’s twist has become an easy target for mocking, in the context of the film it really is fantastic. Some may complain that they could see it coming a mile away, but it’s the execution that brings it to perfection, thus cementing the Shyamalan name in film history.
It was his follow up film, Unbreakable (2000), however, that was the one that ensured he would become synonymous with the twist. Unbreakable is a deconstruction of the superhero origin story. It’s a solid film, masterfully building towards a tense climax that turns the story on its head. But instead of distancing himself from this type of film, Shyamalan attempted to embrace his status as the twist-master by delivering another film that shocked audience expectations. In some ways, it almost seems like a P.R. move on his behalf, a way of marketing himself as a filmmaker and establishing a brand early on.
After Unbreakable, Shyamalan churned out a slew of films, like Signs (2002), The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006), that all relied on some form of twist. While the overall quality of each film is questionable, Shyamalan’s reliance on using such a plot device over and over eventually cheapened the experience.
The first three quarters of Signs is a great science-fiction thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It tackles interesting concepts like faith, fate and the threat of extra-terrestrial life, while smartly leaving the aliens unseen and to the imagination of the viewer. The film’s main issue though, and one that left a lot of audiences unsatisfied, lies with its poorly constructed twist, which was done at the cost of any common sense. Having water be a poisonous substance to alien life is not a terrible idea, but having spent an hour and a half watching that same alien life attempt to invade earth (which obviously mainly consists of water) with no protective wear whatsoever is simply poor, truly undermining an enjoyable conclusion.
While The Village was also an enjoyable film, it was really the marketing for the film that let it down. Reliant on not giving the twist away, the trailers focused heavily on the gothic aspects of the film, depicting it as a supernatural horror of a village terrorized by mysterious monsters. The film, however, is more of a psychological thriller, with bits and pieces of horror here and there. It’s then not surprising that it would be such a let down for anyone viewing it under these assumptions.
And, to be frank, Lady in the Water was weird. It was just weird. And this from someone who normally enjoys meta-type narratives! Shyamalan’s attempt to comment on the story-making process simply wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. Top this with a twist that wasn’t really a twist guaranteed another disappointing venture.
The problem isn’t really his choice to rely so heavily on choosing projects that offer narrative twists, it’s that not all of his twists are very good. After Unbreakable, audiences entered theatres with an expectation that any film that he released would end with a shocking twist that would blow their mind.
Filmmaking 101 says that a twist is always best when you don’t see it coming. It also has to feel relevant to the story being told and not a cheap tactic that relies on revealing something that doesn’t really make sense within the narrative. Knowing what to expect of a Shyamalan film, and his obvious effort to keep one-upping himself with each film, has meant that his attempt to shock has become more of a gimmick instead.
All of this becomes much more interesting when you consider the television mockumentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan (2004). The film sets up the idea that Shyamalan is in fact a mysterious figure with a past filled with secrets. As the filmmakers dive deeper, they find many of the twists of his films are based on his real life and that he may in fact be of a supernatural nature himself. The film was marketed as being real at the time as a form of promotion for The Village and suggests that it was a move to really brand Shyamalan. If you’re familiar with his work though, it is an interesting watch, plus you get to see Johnny Depp smoke a blunt.
Where Shyamalan’s career has taken him since The Village and the mockumentary has not been so interesting. The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) were critical flops that seemed to destroy any chance of reigniting Shyamalan’s once-bright promise.
The Last Airbender has been publicly shamed as not only a poor adaptation, with little resemblance to its source material, but also as verging on racist with the whitewashing of what should have been varying character ethnicities. Shyamalan only recently stated though, in an interview with IGN, that he stands by the film and that he could make it “…for nine and 10-year-olds — or [he] could do the Transformers version and have Megan Fox.” While it’s admirable in some ways that he didn’t want to sexualize the children’s show, he does seem somewhat delusional in his belief that he was able to deliver a true adaptation, or even one that was entertaining.
After Earth, on the other hand, almost saw the complete absence of his involvement in marketing by Sony. His name was removed from any advertising of the film in an attempt to avoid any disinterest from audiences who would otherwise avoid the filmmaker. Although it seems somewhat at odds as to why they would have moved ahead with him in the first place.
While the only real flop financially was Lady in the Water, it’s hard to really pinpoint the cause of the downward spiral Shyamalan’s career has taken. The major problem appears to be in his need to have full control over a project, where it seems that there is no one to say ‘no’ or rein in his work. While it was successful earlier in his career, perhaps his constant need to top his last film has skewered his creative judgment or it could be simply that his earlier success freed him from the limitations set down by studio heads.
The film Devil (2010) received fairly good reviews and is a fitting example of how Shyamalan’s talents can be channeled properly. Here Shyamalan helped create the story and also produced, but did not write or direct. While there is a twist at the end, it isn’t solely based around it and sticks within the premise, which lets the film naturally progress as much as a story about the being trapped in a lift with the devil possibly could. It seems positioning Shyamalan to have story and creative input, rather than control, proved to be a more valuable decision.
Another example can be seen in the recent series Wayward Pines (2015), where Shyamalan served as executive producer and directed the pilot, working alongside showrunner Chad Hodge (The Playboy Club, Runaway). Another project with a major twist that seems to fit Shyamalan’s brand, his role was geared towards setting up the world and then guiding Hodge’s narrative. So far it’s confirmed to be more watchable than anything Shyamalan has released in years.
How Shyamalan can attempt to fix his career and reputation may be dependent entirely on whether he actually wants to. The obvious fix is to steer away from the twist and instead focus on just making a good film. The other is to somehow limit the creative power Shyamalan has.
It would benefit him to partner up with another filmmaker and work in more of a collaborative way, allowing someone else to filter and refine Shyamalan’s ideas, while adding their own. Perhaps the best course of action is for him to stick to the background, producing here and there, and lending the undeniable talent that he does have for storytelling to other auteurs.