With M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film Split releasing this weekend I wanted to look back at some of the director’s past films. Some of them are big favorites, and some not so much. Like most people I had the same feelings about the director following some of his early work. But upon repeat viewings and actually thinking about those films, there’s actually more to like than he gets credit for.
Shyamalan hit it big in 1999 when The Sixth Sense was released, which tells the story of a troubled young boy who can see the dead and the psychologist who helps him. It featured one of the biggest and most talked about twist endings of all time and went on to become a box office hit, grossing over 200 million. Following The Sixth Sense success, many hoped that the director’s next film would also deliver, and what kind of twist will happen.
A year later, Shyamalan returned with his newest film, Unbreakable. This was a different direction compared to The Sixth Sense, though it did involve some supernatural elements. It was a different take on superhero films that probably wouldn’t resonate too well today with Marvel and DC Films. I actually just watched Unbreakable recently in its entirety for the first time, and I’m not even kidding when I say it’s much better than the superhero films we get today. There is a lot more substance to the story and its characters instead of being a run-of-the-mill blockbuster film. The dreary imagery that Shyamalan uses also adds much to it. Despite not really having a major twist, but more of a turn in plot, people still loved what Shyamalan brought to the table, as Unbreakable made just under 100 million.
His next film Signs released in 2002 and to this day is still talked about amongst people when discussing horror films. It tells the story of an ex-preacher who loses his faith after the death of his wife, finds himself having to protect his children and brother against an imminent alien invasion. Needless to say, it’s the clear fan favorite after The Sixth Sense. And I completely understand this, the film terrified me when I saw it in the theater. The little we saw of the aliens provided a great amount of chills and thrills, but in the iconic scene where we finally see the full image of the alien, I remember the whole theater freaking the hell out, and my own heart pounding, while jumping slightly. The final act also brought on a lot of heart pounding sequences. Once again, people assumed a twist was involved, but like with Unbreakable, this one more so had plot turns and more-so “ah ha moments.” While the film is still iconic and pretty suspenseful, I really thought the whole religion and faith aspects were too “in your face” and doesn’t sit well with me. Signs did fairly well at the box office with a modest 60 million. But compared to his previous two films, this was quite a drop.
Now here is where we get into the murky waters of M. Night’s career and when people suddenly began turning away. The Village was his next film in 2004 that took place in a small country village surrounded by an ominous looking wood that’s said to be the home of vicious monsters, and the truce that the townspeople have with them that is about to be broken. The trailers looked promising with the story is provided and the setting. The film earned a respectable 50 million, but it’s the film that had people turning away from Shyamalan. Ironically it did feature a twist, but not the twist people desired, they thought it was stupid, disappointing, or predictable. I wasn’t a fan of this one either at first, but in time I began to respect it for what it was. Prior to the twist it featured some chilling moments involving the monsters, and while the twist is slightly disappointing, the central idea and themes of The Village makes sense and when really thinking about it, it makes the twist work. Even if it really take the horror away in the end.
Despite the backlash involving The Village, people still seemed to flock to Shyamalan’s films. Lady in the Water earned 42 million dollars with it’s fantasy story (again not the horror movie and twist-filled story people expect). This is another film I really didn’t respect until a second or third viewing. It’s about a grieving man who encounters a young woman in trouble, and in time he comes to learn that she (as well as the creatures after her) are something out of a bed time story. Despite his disbelief he feels a need to help her. Lady in the Water also featured some plot turns in the story, but nothing shocking. In all honesty I consider this M. Night’s most underrated film. In actuality it has a beautiful story at its core and even more beautiful imagery and score. The whole film genuinely feels like it is one big bedtime story in front of us. This one wasn’t a favored film either because of change of genre for Shyamalan. But it’s one I think haters truly should give a second watch with an open mind.
And now we come to the film that really gave M. Night some shade from audiences. The Happening came out in 2008 and told the story of a man, his wife, and a young girl who find themselves amongst a growing plague of mass suicides and people going crazy. The film did have a twist, but it is the most laughably horrible twist ever. Really, the whole film was laughable and Mark Wahlberg really had to work his ass off to gain any respect he did have prior to this movie. The movie itself still fared well financially with 64 million, but it had the worst word of mouth of all of Shyamalan’s films. And his next two didn’t help matters.
Now, I admit I haven’t seen The Last Airbender and After Earth, but they’re recognized as two of the biggest bombs of all time, and didn’t exactly win back M. Night’s fans.
It seemed that people were over M. Night Shyamalan until his small film called The Visit was released in 2015. This one was a hybrid of regular film and found footage. It’s about two children who go to meet their grandparents for the first time, but their visit becomes a nightmare when they realize something isn’t right about Nana and Pop-Pop. With a small budget of 5 million dollars, The Visit become a massive success earning a total of 65 million in the long run. It appeared that M. Night has returned to the director and writer people loved. Even though I hated the younger brother and the rapping his provides, it was chilling story with some humor, but kind of uncomfortable laughter. The twist is pretty brilliant even if some may have predicted it, but it works so well even so.
Now with his new film Split gaining some pretty glowing reviews so far, and some saying M. Night is back and better than ever, it can be said that huge comebacks are definitely possible. Having just seen Split, I can agree that it’s his best film since Signs. No real twists here, just a surprise cameo at the end that feels almost like an afterthought.
Clearly M. Night hit it the most big with his first three films. And he had some duds the rest of the way until recent. But where his duds really that bad? I honestly don’t think so. I feel like so many have this image of him because of The Sixth Sense and that every film will have this big huge surprise twist ending. But that’s not the case, he’s never really had big twist endings. Most of his film have had just plot turns that involve the value of characters or other plot devices introduced. As far as The Village and Lady in the Water go, at their cores, they really do have some very well-thought out stories. The themes of The Village can ring pretty true to society, and as I mentioned with Lady in the Water it’s a nice change for M. Night in providing a very wonderful fantasy story. While The Happening was pretty fricken bad, the idea M. Night had is clear, even if it was in the most ridiculous fashion possible. But then it seems he does know what his audience wants because he really knows to make up for what audiences don’t want, as indicated by The Visit and now Split.
M. Night Shyamalan is a director who unfortunately peaked with his first film and it’s followed him ever since. So many want to compare his films to The Sixth Sense, and it’s really unfair because he does bring some good work to the table (with the exceptions of The Happening, Airbender, and After Earth). He is a pretty great director with a great vision of what he wants from his films. It’s just up to the audience to put the Sixth Sense image of him aside and really be open-minded to his other work. I may have not enjoyed The Village or Lady in the Water initially, but second or more viewings really changed that. And even Unbreakable shows he has a great vision to offer new takes on stories, such as superheroes.