Director Series: M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the more prolific directors of the last decade yet many view him as a director falling from grace. For some he’s already hit the ground.

Shyamalan’s commercial breakthrough was with The Sixth Sense (1999). This movie has been voted on by over 200,000 people on IMDB, ranking it in the top 150, so clearly this movie is well loved. Much talked about upon its release – with people conscious not to spoil the twist – the final reveal makes you want to watch the movie again straight away. With a simple storyline that is incredibly well delivered, it set a high precedent for the director to follow; lambasted for not reaching the heights of this movie since.

Oddly enough, Unbreakable (2000) didn’t seem to receive as much exposure. Heavily rooted in reality with a comic-book-esque storyline and strongly scripted central characters (played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson) this is possibly my second favourite Shyamalan movie. A movie about the extraordinary, it concludes in a similar fashion to his previous movie with a reveal; not so much of a massive twist this time, but still an ending that keeps you thinking. It has a subtlety which most casual viewers are unaware of, but Shyamalan’s screenplay oozes with comic-book research that fans of the genre will love.

He followed with another supernatural but reality-lead movie, this time erring on the side of science-fiction in his movie about faith, Signs (2002). Many critics started to call in to question Shyamalan’s originality, citing the fact Signs was yet another ‘twist’ movie. Some critics pulled apart its story and logic (many of which spread throughout popular culture), but I feel they’re unfair. Some movies are better enjoyed with a suspension of disbelief and this is such a movie. The alien's adversity to water and the fact the planet’s surface is three-quarters covered by it is seen as one such failing, yet we are never given any reason why the alien is on our planet. It doesn’t take itself seriously (the tin-foil hats!) and neither should the audience. Enjoy the movie for the ride, the intrigue and conclusion.

The Village (2004) is my favourite movie by Shyamalan – a controversial opinion to have. Set in the late nineteenth century it follows the “population of a small, isolated countryside village” as they live in fear of mysterious creatures that live in the forest which surrounds them. Again, Shyamalan uses a simple story, includes subtle hints and details which reward multiple viewings, places conflict from multiple sources (faith, family and aliens in Signs, and community, monsters and blind trust here) and provides a great conclusion which makes the viewer reassess what they have just watched. After my first viewing of The Village I wanted to go back to the start and look at details I had obviously overlooked. The screenplay, acting and cinematography are top notch, but it’s the details such as symbolism, use of colour and particularly its statement about society which makes me appreciate this Shyamalan movie the most.

Lady in the Water (2006) was the first movie which critics started their real hate campaign against the director. This wasn't helped by two characters in the movie; firstly the portrayal of Shyamalan as a person who will write something which will change the world and secondly, the demise of a character playing a movie critic. The movie is a dark fantasy but again set in contemporary America - this time round a poolside housing complex. The dialogue is pretty terrible in places, and some of the scenes appear to be unintentionally comedic, but the fairy tale story is full of hope, mystery and wonder and stars such colourful characters. I find it difficult to loath a movie which many have so unjustly disregarded.

The Happening (2008) was my first disappoint. Marketed as a R-rated gory horror movie, it's actually a B-movie through and through, and although not to every one's taste, the misleading marketing upset audiences who were expecting something different. Shyamalan clearly has a dry sense of humour, something which is noticeable in his previous movies, but The Happening was the first time he focused on this element. The comedic elements are numerous, extremely deadpan and often miss their mark, but there are a couple of clever remarks. The movie was far from perfect, but if you watch it understanding that it's a tongue-in-cheek B-movie, it may well be more enjoyable.

The Last Airbender (2010) was a serious failure. In my review I outlined everything which was wrong with the movie. I hope the studios and M. Night Shyamalan don’t invest their time and money in a sequel, and that the director returns to writing and directing his trademark ‘twist’ movies as he clearly has an eye for this type of movie.

His success with The Sixth Sense has been a double edge sword for Shyamalan. Whilst the movie gave the director options within Hollywood, overly harsh critical disdain since then has almost ruined his career. The critics loved the twist in ‘The Sixth Sense’, but after the director used similar tactics in Signs and The Village he was labeled a one-trick pony. However, after trying new ideas, critics cried foul and announced the end of his career. Cornered into following the successful twist movie, he appears to be damned either way – stay safe with twists or try another genre. The Last Airbender certainly hasn’t helped discourage the critics nor salvage his career but I have faith that he can produce more entertaining and enjoyable movies in the future.

This part of a series looking at movie directors.