The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of M. Night Shyamalan

M Night Shyamalan

As we head into the weekend, M. Night Shyamalan has a certified fresh film in the form of Split. Sitting pretty at 77% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, it continues a resurgence of a career that was in need of some rebuilding by the time The Visit was released in 2015. That film was certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 64% and it was a reminder of a promising career that was tarnished by the weight of his own early successes. Looking back on his body of work, he has seen some extreme highs and as bad as they get lows, but we all love a comeback and he has certainly rebounded in a big way.

M. Night Shyamalan began his career in 1992 with a film called Praying With Anger. It was a semi-autobiographical film that he made while still attending NYU. He funded the film by borrowing money from family and friends amounting to a budget of $800,000. The film had a run at the Toronto Film Festival and eventually made $1.4 million but it didn’t give him that big break that would get him recognized.

In 1998, Wide Awake, a film that was completed in 1995, was released and despite attracting some decent names (most notably Denis Leary and Rosie O’Donnell) the film didn’t catch on and received poor notices from critics (39% rotten on Rotten Tomatoes). The film cost $6 million to make and could only muster up a final gross of $282,175. Despite this failure, Shyamalan’s critical and box office luck was about to change in a big way with a film that took the world by storm.

The Sixth SenseShyamalan would gain huge international attention with The Sixth Sense, a supernatural drama that featured solid writing, directing and performances from its main cast. Despite promoted and billed as a horror film, The Sixth Sense was more of a drama that told a compelling story of a lonely young boy who is trying to connect with a child psychologist who seems destined to help him. There are some solid scares but the trajectory of their story is what draws you in and it pays off with a twist ending that had everyone talking. The true power of the film is that it is already a solid effort before the ending but the final moments are the icing on the cake by a director who seemed very skilled in the art of misdirection.

Made for $40 million, The Sixth Sense was the very definition of a word of mouth hit when it was released in 1999. It opened to $26.6 million at number one and stayed in that position for five straight weeks. It grossed $293,506,292 in the States and a massive $672,806,292 worldwide. While the box office was impressive, Shyamalan also earned high critical praise. The film holds an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it did something that most genre films fail to do: earn the attention of the Academy. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment) and Best Supporting Actress (Toni Collette). Even though it didn’t take home any of these awards, it cemented Shyamalan as a new talent that was meant to be watched.

UnbreakableSo how do you follow up a film that was adored by moviegoers and critics alike? Shyamalan went in a rather bold direction of creating his very own superhero origin story. Even though the marketing wanted you to think this was a mystery along the lines of The Sixth Sense, 2000’s Unbreakable had the classic motifs of watching a superhero coming to grips with his mysterious powers. Bruce Willis, teaming up with the director once again after The Sixth Sense, hits all the right notes as our conflicted would-be superhero and is aided by some inspired direction that channels a comic book come to life. Each time I’ve watched that film I have pictured some of the shots as a panel in a comic book and it makes for a visually exciting experience. It’s a very original film and is widely considered as one of his best among his fans.

Success like The Sixth Sense is hard to match and while Unbreakable was successful ($248.1 million worldwide on a $75 million budget) only $95 million of that came from the domestic front and it didn’t have the same word of mouth appeal as his previous film. I think part of the problem was that people were expecting more of the same from him and he went left with this one and it just didn’t have the same mass appeal. It has since gained more of a cult following and definitely achieved the acceptance that it deserved back in 2000. Critics liked it, albeit not as much as they did The Sixth Sense (68% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) but it was generally accepted as a worthy follow-up to the film that made him a name in Hollywood.

For his next film, Shyamalan would go back to the world of thrillers and horror with a bit of a science-fiction twist. Signs, released in 2002, seemed to have all the elements that made The Sixth Sense so successful. It was a solid exercise in suspense, it was drenched in atmosphere and it also seemed to function more as a drama about an unusual family rather than a typical sci-fi thriller. Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson, is a former priest looking for meaning in life after the death of his wife. His family ends up being a part of this small town invasion that makes up the meat of the story and it’s these events that, in a way, gives him something to fight for and accomplish. It may not be groundbreaking storytelling but it allows the film to work on multiple levels. The scares and suspense are a bonus added to a human story that is very easy to relate to.

Signs was a bit of a return to form for Shyamalan after Unbreakable. It saw the level of success that The Sixth Sense achieved, thanks mostly to a solid marketing campaign that sold the mystery of the film very well. Made for $72 million, the film made $408.2 million worldwide and $227.9 million of that came from the domestic box office. It was also a big hit with critics with a 74% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert most notably gave it high praises with 4 out of 4 stars review.

So now Shyamalan is three for three with mainstream hits and it appears he can do just about anything. 2004’s The Village is the result of Shyamalan going to extremes with his creativity but it’s the first sign of cracks in his ability as a storyteller. The film starts off well enough but you get the sense that only he understands how good HE thinks this is.

The film, about a village whose inhabitants live in fear of creatures inhabiting the woods beyond it, starts off well enough and has the elements of Shyamalan intrigue, but it’s the first of his films to noticeably drag. The suspense is muted and the circumstances within the story begin to feel more convoluted than intriguing. Then there is the issue of the ending which is one that has polarized just about anyone who has seen it. Shyamalan, at this point, was becoming known for his twist endings and while most have paid off, this one was a huge misstep. It adds to the silliness of the story and it doesn’t make up for the chore that it takes to get there.

The Village was technically a success against its $60 million budget. It grossed $256.7 million worldwide but only $114 million coming from the States and that was after an opening in the $60 million range. That means word of mouth was bad enough to knock the legs out of this one. It didn’t help that critics didn’t embrace the film either. It’s 43% rotten on Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert, who gave his previous film 4 stars, awarded this entry with 1 star and it ended up on his Most Hated list.

I’m sure after the lukewarm reception for The Village Shyamalan wanted to try something new to mix things up. He has a creative mind and is full of ideas. One of them happened to be his very own original fairy tale. Of course, this is Shyamalan and it has to have a bit of a thriller twist but the result is one mess of a film called The Lady in the Water.

The problems with the film begin with how silly things sound on paper. The film’s plot concerns the superintendent of a Philadelphia apartment complex who discovers a young woman in the swimming pool. Gradually, he and his neighbors learn that she is a water nymph whose life is in danger from a vicious, wolf-like, mystical creature that tries to keep her from returning to her watery “blue world.” Does this sound like a story with mass appeal? Not exactly.

If you’re going to explore a plot like this, the writing and direction have to be top notch enough to make us buy into the story but the film has the same problems as The Village. It’s clear that he thinks this is an intriguing and original idea but it’s also clear that maybe he needed someone else to take a look at the script and offer him up some advice. It’s as if he couldn’t get out of his own way with this one and there is nothing more hard to watch than a film where the creative team involved thinks they’re making the second coming when it is in fact, a stinker.

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About Gaius Bolling 1032 Articles
At the age of five, I knew I wanted to write movies and about them. I've set out to make those dreams come true. As an alumni of the Los Angeles Film Academy, I participated in their Screenwriting program, while building up my expertise in film criticism. I write reviews that relate to the average moviegoer by educating my readers and keeping it fun. My job is to let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world of cinema, so you can have your best moviegoing experience. You can find more of my writing on Instagram @g_reelz.