Let me set a scene for you: I’m sitting in a crowded theater as a preview comes on screen. It looks like trailer for a standard horror movie: People in an elevator going to work, the elevator gets stuck, creepiness ensues. Then the following pops up: “Produced by M. Night Shyamalan.” As soon as those five words hit the screen, about half the people in the theater audibly groaned. It was such a universal and visceral reaction that I couldn’t help but laugh. Here was a filmmaker whose first major movie was a total breakout hit, a unique and unexpected thriller that got six Oscar nominations, including two for Shyamalan himself, and a little over a decade later audiences hate seeing that he even produced a movie. What the hell happened?
Let’s take a look at what M. Night has put out as a writer/director since The Sixth Sense. In case we needed evidence that Shyamalan has lost a step (at least), my friend and fellow Fansided contributor Michael McGraw (check him out over at the Washington Redskins site) pointed me towards Rotten Tomatoes, where we can really see the steady decline in his movies’ critical reception. His first two post-Sixth Sense releases, Unbreakable and Signs, have pretty good scores overall – 68% and 74% respectively – and I enjoyed both in spite of some flaws. Unbreakable does its best to put a unique spin on the superhero genre, though I thought Samuel L. Jackson was allowed to do a little too much scenery chewing. Signs was also compelling in its own way, though its twist about the aliens’ weakness was dubious, not to mention remarkably similar to the vulnerability of Bruce Willis’ character in Unbreakable. But it takes more than a little rehashing of ideas to ruin a filmmaker’s reputation.
From then on, Shyamalan’s goal seems to become “manufacture suspense at any cost,” and the quality of his films really pays the price. The Village (43% on RT) is a film with a whole lot of buildup to a predictable twist that lacked any real payoff. Lady in the Water (24%) is a convoluted and overly silly attempt to tell a children’s fairytale that gets lost trying so hard to be meta (a movie about a fantastical character named Story trying to help a writer finish a story with the characters in the movie as characters in the story – yikes). And then, well, then there’s The Happening (17%), which is easily Shyamalan’s worst movie (and the dumbest, vaguest title ever). It takes the “manufacture suspense” idea and overdoes it to such ridiculous levels it’s unbelievable. We’re given menacing shots of the wind blowing tall grass, Mark Wahlberg trying to talk down a fern, and an environmental message so transparent it’s laughable. It’s hard for me to understand how Shyamalan could produce all of that and think he was making a serious, suspenseful movie.
Like I discussed on Wednesday about Will Smith, the issue at the heart of Shyamalan’s decline is the fact that he got stuck in a predictable pattern. The surprise ending of The Sixth Sense had a lot to do with its success with audiences, and I think it led Shyamalan to focus too much on trying to replicate that accomplishment. He succeeded to an extent with the two films that came after, but then the twist became the focus instead of crafting a compelling story. Unfortunately it seems the director lost his handle on how to create thrills around intriguing characters and began to rely instead on gimmicks and obvious misdirection. Here’s hoping that Shyamalan’s career can have a twist ending of its own and he can one day deliver on the promise he once showed – though the reviews of After Earth (12% on RT) indicate today is not that day.