“Movies will end up being this esoteric art form, where only singular people will put films out in a small group of theatres.”—M. Night Shyamalan
The name M. Night Shyamalan has almost become synonymous with bizarre supernatural settings and the trope of “twist-endings”. Although his films are not always well-received by critics, the American filmmaker has had phenomenal commercial successes with most of his films, grossing over $3 billion cumulatively. Shyamalan’s unique vision of the sci-fi genre has both engaged and confused global audiences.
Shyamalan knew he wanted to be a filmmaker ever since he got his first Super 8 camera as a child. However, his father wanted him to be a doctor and continue the family tradition. The aspiring director was encouraged by his mother to follow his dream and by the time he was seventeen, he had made more than 45 home movies. He cites Stephen Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock as his biggest influences.
On his 50th birthday, we take a look at the highly controversial filmography of the director who is often described as the “misunderstood genius”.
M. Night Shyamalan Films Ranked:
13. The Last Airbender (2010)
Making a film adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender was always going to be challenging but M. Night Shyamalan really dropped the ball on this one. He failed to recreate the sense of magical wonder that the mystical world of the original sense invokes us in right from the first scene. The beauty of the animation does not translate well to the cinematic medium and we are left with an oversaturation of VFX effects without any of the grandeur of the original.
However, M. Night Shyamalan stands by his work, stating: “My child was nine-years-old. So you could make it one of two ways. You could make it for that same audience, which is what I did—for nine and 10-year-olds—or you could do the Transformers version and have Megan Fox. I didn’t do that.”
He added, “I go out and 10-year-olds are like, ‘That’s my favourite show! I love that movie!’ Parents come up to me and go, ‘They’ve watched The Last Airbender 74 times!’ Those kids, it’s for them.”
12. The Happening (2008)
M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 sci-fi drama felt like it was going to be a huge success on paper, because of his experience with intimate thrillers around the late ’90s and early 2000s. However, The Happening is a dogmatic film that chooses to lecture instead of revealing something substantial. A transparent allegory about climate change, Shyamalan’s effort falls flat, failing to create a compelling case for the world it creates.
Mark Wahlberg, who played the protagonist of the film, publicly criticised the 2008 thriller, “We had actually had the luxury of having lunch before to talk about another movie and it was a bad movie that I did,” the actor said. “She ( Amy Adams) dodged the bullet.”
He continued, “And then I was still able to…I don’t want to tell you what movie…alright, The Happening. Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.”
11. After Earth (2013)
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, M. Night Shyamalan’s films were becoming increasingly different, not necessarily in a good way, from the artistic vision of his previous works. Fans of his early oeuvre were growing even more disillusioned with the unrecognisable films that Shyamalan had started producing. Sadly, After Earth was one of those films. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure, Shyamalan’s 2013 film feels uninspired and frustrating.
In an interview, Shyamalan famous said, “I hope when people see my name on a movie it means they are not going to get what they think they are getting. I offer originality.” If disappointment is subversion then the expectations of After Earth’s audience was definitely subverted.
10. Praying With Anger (1992)
Praying With Anger is probably the least seen film in his filmography. This 1992 drama about an alienated, Americanized teenager of East Indian heritage was M. Night Shyamalan’s debut. It is a film that was supposed to be about self-discovery and the exploration of one’s culture but it lacks the profoundness of a work that demands to be taken seriously. Shyamalan’s own amateurish performance is off-putting but what the film lacks in skill, it makes up for in honesty.
Actor Arun Balachander remembered things about the young filmmaker, “He was very observant of mannerisms and all of those minute details – from the sets to the props to the lighting. He had no airs at all.”
Adding, “He was quite strict sometimes though. When he wanted things done a certain way, his personality would change. He would switch from being a friend to a strict director.”
9. Lady In The Water (2006)
This is the film which marked the start of an unstable period in Shyamalan’s career. Lady In The Water was his attempt to fuse fantasy and reality. The 2006 effort is about a modest building manager named Cleveland Heep who saves a mysterious young woman, only to discover that she is actually a character from a bedtime story who is trying to go back to her world. Shyamalan never manages to strike a compelling balance between the two irreconcilable worlds.
Shyamalan explained where he got the idea for the film, “The story actually came from me telling the back story that’s in the movie to my kids. Ultimately, what I was trying to duplicate was the kind of free-spiritedness that’s there when you tell it to your kids in that room. There’s no editor in there, it’s very beautiful and you don’t know whether it’s going to come together or not. There’s this kind of danger in it.”
8. Wide Awake (1998)
Shyamalan’s first studio film, the 1998 comedy-drama Wide Awake is a “coming of age” story about Joshua, a 10-year-old looking who conducts an innocent philosophical investigation of his own after his grandfather passes away. Although Shyamalan portrays everything in a sensitive manner, a lot of the characters and plot points come across as clichés of the genre.
The filmmaker steered clear of any emotional and sentimental materials after Wide Awake because he felt he was not able to be innovative enough while working in that particular genre. Even though the film had a surprise ending, something that most fans associate with Shyamalan, it wasn’t anywhere near as polished as the one in The Sixth Sense.
7. Glass (2019)
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Glass, is a sci-fi thriller and it is the final chapter in the “Eastrail 177 trilogy”, following his earlier successes like Unbreakable and Split. Glass is an allegorical tale about man’s unlimited potential but it does not reach the same heights as his previous work. However, it is a welcome deviation from his mid-career crisis and maybe it is an indication that he is on the right path again.
While speaking about his superhero series, Shyamalan said, “The fact that comic-book movies are prolific now helped in terms of getting the movie to be accepted by the system. But that wasn’t related to why I got interested in making this series again. I became interested again because the accepted tone of cinema has changed in my favour; in favour of my tastes.”
He added, “You know, what was too weird with Kubrick and Lynch would be more accepted today, in my opinion. So that’s the real exciting movement in the marketplace. I saw that become mainstream and I’m like, ‘OK, let me get back in there’.”
6. The Visit (2015)
This 2015 horror mystery, his first real horror film, is closer to Shyamalan’s best work. It is an engaging and bizarre story about two siblings who are sent to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farm for a weeklong trip. Things get complicated when they discover that their grandparents are involved in something insidious. The Visit is Shyamalan’s deranged interpretation of Hansel and Gretel but with this film, he broke his poor run and gave us a glimpse of his former self.
“I love scary movies. I never really considered my previous films as scary though… but The Visit? Yeah! This is the one,” Shyamalan explained. “The intention of the film is to thrill and scare. I mean, sure, with The Sixth Sense and Signs, there were some terrifying things about those films, but I would consider them more thrillers than horror films.”
Shyamalan seemed to have fond memories of the experience of shooting the film, “Making The Visit was A LOT of fun, and that translates to the screen when you watch the movie. The weirdness of The Visit is actually my favourite part. It’s mischievous.”
5. The Village (2004)
Shyamalan made The Village off of the back of successes like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Although this is not on the same level as his early work, M. Night Shyamalan did manage to construct a compelling atmospheric thriller in a creepy period setting about a rural community who live in isolation and are forbidden to go into the neighbouring woods for fear of the mysterious creatures that live there.
Speaking about the special significance of the woods, Shyamalan said, “The woods are a place that we are genetically afraid of, we know not to go into them in order to survive, so I am taking advantage of that.”
“It came from the feeling that the world is a scary place right now and desire to go back to simplicity; emotional colours were accurate… It’s ironic because we wrote this a while ago.”
4. Signs (2002)
Signs is one of the few works in Shyamalan’s filmography where everything comes together, the question of faith, heightened symbolism and awkward attempts at comedy. The 2002 film is about a disillusioned preacher, crop circles and everything in between. Borrowing from the likes of Spielberg and Hitchcock, Signs is a textbook example of good filmmaking techniques.
The filmmaker spoke about how the tragedy of 9/11 influenced his work, “I can see that. I think my tendency to see global events from a family’s perspective is an interesting one, because we kind of all experienced that just now, this year.”
He continued, “Helpless protecting our families, insecurity about what’s happening in the world. So I could see how the emotions that were stirred with that story are very similar to the ones that we’re experiencing—hopefully in a slightly more benign way, today.”
3. Split (2017)
The second addition to his superhero trilogy, Split is Shyamalan’s successful attempt at mixing the supernatural and the psychological. A protagonist who is a kidnapper with 23 different personalities might seem overwhelming but it ends up being an interesting exposition of the depravity of humanity that lurks beneath the surface.
Shyamalan believed that casting James McAvoy was the perfect choice for his film, saying, “I’d never met James. I only knew him through a handful of his most famous parts, and I was a huge admirer of his elegance. He also seemed to be this leading man who just wanted to act. There was a humility about him. I knew he did stage acting a lot.”
“That was important to me, that he have stagecraft. Initially when I was looking at men who could play this, it’s a very small list. Who can play a child? Who can play a woman? Who can play the physicality? Just asking those questions, it’s very difficult to find somebody.”
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Back when superhero films hadn’t entered the mainstream consciousness to the extent that it has today, M. Night Shyamalan made this sci-fi action thriller as a tribute to the idea of a superhero. Instead of constructing him with titanium armour, he chose to portray his heroes and villains as humans, above everything else. This makes for an interesting examination of the genre itself and the characters come across as real. Unbreakable is a mature and pleasantly ambiguous film.
However, Shyamalan felt he had more to add, “You need to be in a good place. Unbreakable didn’t necessarily work out exactly the way I wanted it to. But now I would go back and tell my younger self, ‘That column is not your concern. Keep going.’ Failure is very cleansing, and success is very confusing.”
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Undoubtedly Shyamalan’s finest work, The Sixth Sense is the film that established M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker with a unique vision. The psychological thriller revolves around an eight-year-old child who seems to have the ability to talk to spirits. Typical of Shyamalan’s narrative style, nothing is ever as it seems and the ending is one of the most famous examples of “twist-endings” in popular culture but it is in no way all the film is. Rich in thematic explorations, The Sixth Sense is a nuanced take on an oversaturated genre.
On the 20th anniversary of his biggest success, Shyamalan reflected, “The Sixth Sense was the movie that didn’t have the legacy to deal with. It didn’t have my name to deal with. So, it would be interesting if The Sixth Sense was the third movie or the fourth movie and how that would’ve changed the audience’s relationship to the film.”
“Could you even watch the movie? Or would you from the first moment in the movie go, ‘Oh, I know what’s happening.’ It’s a really interesting thing. That movie created a relationship with my name and then the name itself now has a framing for all the rest of its cousins. It’s the one movie that got to live without my name.”