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The curious legacy of M. Night Shyamalan

“You don’t get to celebrate yourself unless you risk being mocked or rejected. As an artist, you cannot play it safe. You just can’t.” – M. Night Shyamalan

Sitting down to watch an M. Night Shyamalan film is an experience like no other, for better or for worse. Just like the hidden dips and curves of a high-speed rollercoaster ride, you never quite know when the auteur will twist the narrative and spiral the story into a vortex of disbelief. Harking back to the early history of cinema, when it was little more than a fleeting carnival attraction, M. Night Shyamalan shares a surprising amount with contemporary filmmaker Christopher Nolan as both of them strive to bring shock, awe and fanfare to popular cinema. 

Where Christopher Nolan might do this with flashing bright lights, special effects and grandiose, M. Night Shyamalan attempts to bring cinematic spectacle with a sincere focus on the structure of the story at hand, almost totally disregarding character. Shyamalan’s latest film is a science fiction whodunnit set on a secluded beach that rapidly ages its inhabitants by approximately one year for every half an hour they remain on the island. Desperately searching every avenue of escape, the victims of Shyamalan’s film begin to suffer from typical illnesses attributed to old age, including loss of sight and dementia. It all leads to a big reveal at the film’s climax that serves as both a satisfying resolution, as well as an all too neat bow.

Though whilst the beach’s temporary inhabitants flap and flounder, it becomes clear that it is not Shyamalan’s intention to focus specifically on these individuals; they are sacrificial pawns to the story at hand. Shyamalan’s focus is – and has always been – on the spectacle of the story, the thrill of the resolution. The VisitThe HappeningThe Village and Lady in the Water each feed into this same obsession, with each lead character a mere conduit for the story.

It goes to explain M. Night Shyamalan’s often poor screenwriting, feeding lines straight from the plot synopsis into the mouths of the characters in order to feed, fuel and build anticipation for that sweet final climax. Though, often with the knowledge of this before watching a Shyamalan film, viewing his films becomes an oddly enthralling experience, a pop-puzzle that is pleasurable to decipher, even if ultimately futile. Whilst you may feel as if you’re making considerable headway in solving the film’s intricate puzzle, Shyamalan’s resolutions are often so off-the-wall that they keep you guessing right up until the after-credits scene. 

Such creates a carnivalesque sense of joy in which to watch 2008s The Happening, for example, becomes an indulgent ride into throwaway frivolity, with little lasting legacy. It is when M. Night Shyamalan integrates a character into the story and intrinsically links that character to the climactic twist that he really comes into his own. Both 2016s psychological thriller Split and the ’90s classic The Sixth Sense, which undoubtedly ranks among the director’s most acclaimed works, use their characters as structural pieces to fortify and strengthen their final climax.

An enigmatic director who operates on his own terms, M. Night Shyamalan has, for his last five projects, funded and produced his own movies, making him somewhat of a liberated auteur from the studio system. As a result, he has been able to take considerable risks, making a strange in-direct sequel to his superhero film Unbreakable before forming a team-up movie in 2019s Glass. As a unique mind in the often rudimental world of Hollywood, M. Night Shyamalan should be celebrated, after all, there’s no one else quite like him.

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