5 Glass-Half-Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan 5 Glass Half Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

Is it more accurate to say that M. Night Shyamalan is a polarizing cinematic figure, or that he is just widely maligned? The director has gone from rising star to whipping boy to laughing stock in what feels like such a short time span, a popular film career that has gone on for not even 15 years. The promise of his early films such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable seems like a distant memory, and today his name evokes—despite rather consistent box office success—almost uniform critical derision.

How did this fall from grace happen? It baffles me. The Sixth Sense is kind of an undeniable classic, so ingrained in the cultural psyche that its famous twist and catchphrase are etched in Hollywood history. Unbreakable, which came out a year after the resounding success on Sixth Sense, may be an even stronger and more resonant film despite its less iconic status. The decline was relatively gradual, I suppose. Signs showed signs of structural weakness. The Village had a decent foundation but was riddled with cracks and flaws. Lady in the Water and The Happening signaled nothing short of an absolute implosion. They were so bad that I haven’t even been able to bring myself to watch The Last Airbender because seriously guys, like I just can’t even right now.

After Earth is the latest Shyamalan enterprise. Is there hope for it? Who knows. I don’t like to speculate on such things. What I do know is that if anyone is due for a comeback, it’s our old pal M. Night. Here are 5 glimmers of hope from his previous films to keep us optimistic about the dawn of a new day for M. Night Shyamalan.

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1) We know he knows how to make a good movie

Unbreakable 5 Glass Half Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

It would be one thing if The Sixth Sense was a clear fluke from a one-hit wonder director whose every film since was a disaster, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with M. Night Shyamalan. His sophomore effort on the big stage, Unbreakable, was arguably a stronger effort than his rookie picture. Sixth Sense was a highly effective thriller, building up long stretches of suspense and sustaining a compelling story right up to the famous revelation in the film’s conclusion. Unbreakable, though, has terrific elements of action and suspense, but also some interesting takes on the superhero genre and comic books, and all this being released before the “comic book movie” had really become a thing.

Maybe the late 90s aesthetic was more suited to Shyamalan’s writing and direction. But others have learned to adapt over time; maybe he just needs a little longer than most. His first two films are riveting stuff, demonstrating a filmmaker who is more than capable of establishing a distinct tone to the worlds he creates, one in which the supernatural is relatively believable and the stakes incredibly high because of it. It’s more disappointing that he hasn’t been able to relive his past successes (maybe the problem is that he’s trying to replicate them too closely?) because we know just how much skill he has shown to have in the past. If he’s done it before, he can do it again.

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2) He’s a relatively young guy

The Sixth Sense 5 Glass Half Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

It may seem a minor point, but Shyamalan is currently only 42 years old. The Sixth Sense came out when he was just 29. For a director, that’s exceptionally young, which again points to why there was so much hope around what his career would bring. But just as there seemed like he had plenty of time to improve and perhaps establish himself as a top tier director, he still has a lot of time to get his game back.

What’s more, his movies are performing rather well at the box office. Even if After Earth turns out to be another stinker, the fact that Will Smith is the face of it is sure to result in some sort of box office success. And that will only help facilitate future work for the director. Even if he didn’t make a good movie for another ten years, he’d be just a little older than David Fincher is now; surely he’d still have the capacity to churn out something good. I may be overdoing it with the optimism, but there’s something to be said for a filmmaker perfecting his craft over time, and in the case of M. Night Shyamalan the path may be a little more windy and rocky than for his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make it to the same place.

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3) Despite everything, his movies are still visually strong

Lady in the Water 5 Glass Half Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

After Earth has looked really good from the early previews we’ve been granted so far. And I mean that on a purely cinematographic level. This can’t be chalked up entirely to his cinematographers either I wouldn’t think; he’s not one of those directors who teams up with the same collaborator in each film’s photography. He deserves some credit for this, surely. Both his earliest films looked fantastic, and his work with the legendary Roger Deakins produced some gorgeous imaging in The Village, by far the best aspect of that movie. Lady in the Water also had some fantastic visual moments and a consistently great look.

The weakness often springs up in his dialogue, which is painfully awkward at times. I think back to The Happening and remember lines describing the pleasing shape of a hot dog, for instance, that plays like some kind of a failed joke you’d hear your uncle make at an uncomfortable family dinner. Sometimes he pushes the themes he wants to communicate a little too hard. Sometimes the tone of the movie doesn’t match the intensity that he seems to want to come across in a particular scene. But he has a skill for finding striking images and moments that stick with you even as you roll your eyes at one cheesy moment or cringe-inducing line. We’ll see if this strength will be complemented by others in After Earth. That moment in the trailer where Will Smith is trying to slow down his son’s breathing looks fantastic, at least.

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4) In terms of pure story and plot points, he does decent work

The Village 5 Glass Half Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

When I think about The Village in particular, I usually reflect fairly positively on the premise and the progression of the story. The characters in the abstract seem to work, and to draw out the story and the point of it all and everything. The storytelling in his earlier stuff presumably works as well on the page as it does on the screen. Signs progresses reasonably well, even if the ending is a bit of a letdown, though maybe it was merely undercut by some of the awkward staging of pivotal moments. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to do with the oddity that is Joaquin Phoenix, the way other directors have been able to somehow bring out his genius.

It’s just that when these characters and stories make their way to the screen and get assembled together in sequence, they somehow come out flat, usually awkward, sometimes downright farcical. There are a number of intangible aspects to direction that make the role so crucially important to a movie, and the same faults come up too often in Shyamalan’s work for it to be reasonably pinned on anybody else’s hand. As a writer though, despite dialogue that sometimes sounds like it’s out of a bad late night commercial, he may still be salvageable. In the best of all possible worlds.

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5) God bless him, he’s still trying

The Last Airbender 5 Glass Half Full Observations On M. Night Shyamalan

I would honestly be bummed if Shyamalan ever quit making movies. Unlike guys such as Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich who have different goals of just making movies that are fun and entertaining and whatever, M. Night Shyamalan seems to want to make earnest movies, stories that have an effect on people and matter to viewers and maybe even the culture. It’s just that his slump has lasted longer than most people in his position.

But a point of positivity: it’s lasted longer because he has shown resiliency and not simply hung up his megaphone. Packing up and going home would be admitting defeat, and the persistence he has shown is admirable, in a way. He hasn’t even really slowed down, releasing a movie every second year since 2000, plus one extra year to finish After Earth. Maybe his other projects were too rushed! Maybe that extra year’s delay in After Earth will finally result in M. Night Shyamalan’s return to the greatness promised by The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

One can only hope.

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  • tvor03

    I was one of M. Night’s biggest admirers and defenders, even through The Village, which I still love. Starting with Lady in the Water I began to feel more and more disappointed. I was actually pissed off after watching Last Airbender.

    Night got too far inside his own head. He heard the hype after his first two movies, got sucked into it, and his own hubris destroyed him. The character he played in Lady in the Water depicts perfectly how he sees himself – a writer destined to change the world. Pure arrogance.

    For some reason I still give him the benefit of the doubt, and will probably be there next weekend to see it.

  • Thomas Zack

    I don’t know any directors who have recovered after this many crappy movies. The guy started out on top of the world and has been gliding down since.
    But hey, at least he got to see the top of the world. Very few can say that.

  • Barancy Peloma

    i enjoyed 6th and unbreakable was pretty good too. after that- it didn’t get gradually worse- it was AWFUL!!!
    signs was just horrid. and the village was probably the most BORING chiller i ever saw!! people like to defend those movies claiming it is some ‘thinking person’s’ chiller etc. just a bunch of b.s. they sputter out to make themselves feel smart.
    after seeing signs and the village on tv, i swore off all his movies since and have NOT regretted it one bit!!!

  • Barancy Peloma

    i enjoyed 6th and unbreakable was pretty good too. after that- it didn’t get gradually worse- it was AWFUL!!!
    signs was just horrid. and the village was probably the most BORING chiller i ever saw!! people like to defend those movies claiming it is some ‘thinking person’s’ chiller etc. just a bunch of b.s. they sputter out to make themselves feel smart.
    after seeing signs and the village on tv, i swore off all his movies since and have NOT regretted it one bit!!!