Few filmmakers have experienced the sort of unheralded rise and subsequent implosion that have marked the career of M. Night Shyamalan. His 1999 ghost story The Sixth Sense was a massive hit, and the follow-ups, Unbreakable and Signs, seemed to solidify him as an important voice in science fiction and suspense cinema.
But then, we saw The Village. And Lady In The Water. And almost everything else. From commanding a multi-million dollar deal just to write Signs, Shyamalan had become an almost instant has-been; a whipping boy for critics and fans fed up with his bizarre twists and increasingly sloppy writing, not to mention his own not-so-private sense of self-importance. By the time The Last Airbender was met with scathing reviews, Shyamalan was essentially considered washed up.
This summer’s After Earth downplayed his involvement in its advertisements as much as was humanly possible, apparently aware of his now toxic reputation, and pushing the involvement of Will Smith to replace one infamous name with another. Some reviews have rather unfairly lambasted the film as an unmitigated disaster – which is best considered in the context of how many of the same reviewers probably set out with pre-formed opinions relating more to the director than the film as a stand-alone – but it is visually stunning in places, and it’s certainly a bold concept.
So what the hell happened? How did a filmmaker with so much talent (and yes, there is talent there, especially in his big three but even in some of his failures) self-destruct so spectacularly? I hoped reviewing his films for a ‘Worst to Best’ column might provide me with some answers, or perhaps force me to reevaluate films that I hadn’t seen in a while and perhaps had been too harsh on at first.
Instead, rewatching the filmography of M. Night Shyamalan turned into something of an exercise in masochism. Seeing the talent that was there, and watching it slowly get squandered in worse and worse ways over the course of his career was a painful experience. I remember watching The Sixth Sense and Signs for the first time and being in awe of the sense of wonder and suspense which he was able to conjure out of thin air. How did we get from that sort of skill to grossly inane miscalculations like The Village and Lady In The Water?
Hopefully the following will allow for some analysis of how Shyamalan, in many ways, burst his own bubble. From worst to best, here are the films of M. Night Shyamalan:
Two quick notes: First, I was unable to view Shyamalan’s first film, 1992’s Praying with Anger, as it is seemingly unavailable to rent or stream on any service at my disposal. Secondly, as always, spoilers for will follow.
This article was first posted on June 6, 2013