As an Indian-American director who’s found widespread success, M. Night Shyamalan has made a name for himself as a visionary who knows how to deliver a twist. Although he has been collectively praised as an auteur, he has also endured a fair share of critical and commercial setbacks. Currently, he’s on an upswing with audiences hotly anticipating the release of his superhero sequel, Glass, but where do the rest of his movies rank now? Let’s take a look.
(Note: I’m not including Shyamalan’s 1992 debut PRAYING WITH ANGER as the film never received a mainstream release or distribution.)
11. AFTER EARTH (2013)
Shyamalan is passionate about his films, and he always commits to his vision. You have to respect a director who isn’t afraid to go all-in on an idea. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t quite land. Unfortunately, After Earth falls into the latter. It mixes Planet of the Apes with monsters which, in theory, sounds fun. In fact, much of After Earth sounds interesting on the surface, right down to casting Will Smith in the lead role of Cypher Raige. I mean, how awesome a movie character name is that?
As we all know, movies need more than a cool hero name. After Earth has some neat creature effects, but it’s hampered by a complicated script and its leading man is technically not Will Smith. Nope, Smith’s character gets sidelined early in the movie, leaving his son, Kitai (played by Smith’s actual son, Jaden Smith) to be the hero. Jaden Smith was a young performer, untested in film, and shouldering an ambitious Shyamalan film is a big ask to make of any actor, let alone one with little acting experience to his name.
10. THE VISIT (2015)
The Visit, for many people, was a return to form for Shyamalan. Unfortunately, I wasn’t personally in that group. The Visit is Shyamalan’s take on “sundowning,” a recognized condition usually seen in the elderly where their behavior changes after dark, a form of dementia and cognitive deterioration. The film follows two kids visiting their estranged grandparents only to start questioning the old couple’s bizarre behavior.
The trailers for this were certainly effective, reminding us how frightening the very old can be when you’re very young, and both Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, who play the grandparents, are aces. The challenge lies in the story itself. Are the grandparents controlled by something? Or is this a movie about the paranoia young kids experience around strangers, especially those who come in an advanced age? Unfortunately, it’s easy to deduce the ending. “A” for effort, but overall it leaves you wanting more.
9. THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010)
As someone who had never watched an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender even I knew fans were going to have a hard time embracing this adaptation. The series has an incredibly rich history and a complex backstory that was never going to fully translate into a movie that’s under two hours. Sadly, the story of Aang (played by Noah Ringer) was destined to be underdeveloped from the start.
8. WIDE AWAKE (1998)
Remember that time M. Night Shyamalan directed a family dramedy about a kid’s quest to find God? Don’t fret if you said no. This was released via Miramax’s family label back in 1998. Yes, Miramax had an arm of their studio aimed at creating family fare at one point.
Wide Awake follows Josh Beal (Joseph Cross), whose grandfather dies, plunging the boy into an existential crisis. The movie is pretty sweet if not somewhat paint-by-numbers. If you didn’t tell me this was just Shyamalan’s second feature, and the first to receive a wide distribution, I likely still would have been able to tell. The characters all come from central casting; Rosie O’Donnell plays a nun who loves baseball. It’s also his first feature set in Shyamalan’s beloved Philadelphia. Compared to his later movies, it’s little more than a novelty; that time the director of The Sixth Sense made a religious family drama. It’s a prime example of a young director not yet finding his niche.
7. LADY IN THE WATER (2006)
Lady in the Water was billed as Shyamalan’s take on a fairytale for the modern era, which is interesting. Fairytales started as morality tales for young girls with hosts of colorful characters meant to caricature the worst virtues of humanity. Shyamalan takes that idea and turns it on its head, providing insight into how he perceives the world more than anything else.
The film follows dour apartment manager Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) who finds a mysterious woman (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) in the complex swimming pool. He soon discovers that the woman, named Story, is a magical mermaid-esque figure trying to get back home.
Borrowing elements from The Little Mermaid and E.T., Lady in the Water is a mix of ideas that seem sweet but come off as eccentric. The characters in Heep’s apartment complex range from the utterly bizarre – Reggie (Freddie Rodriguez) who only works out one half of his body to the meta; Bob Balaban plays a jerky critic…wonder what that means? Howard and Giamatti are great, of course, and the out-there plot points keep you morbidly enthralled.
6. THE HAPPENING (2008)
I fully admit and embrace that I find this movie wildly entertaining. The Happening starts out strong; a mysterious force starts compelling people to commit suicide. Commence several minutes of watching people come up with very ingenious ways to inflict pain on themselves. Cut to our hero, Mark Wahlberg’s Elliot Moore. Elliot is a science teacher who knows the proper distinction between “who” and “whom,” which already makes him cool in my book.
Shyamalan really enjoys looking at how we respond, collectively, in a crisis and The Happening is a film about how severe nihilism can really be our undoing. Or, at least I think that’s the point before the twist turns the whole thing into an environmental allegory.
5. UNBREAKABLE (2000)
Okay, I have to add a disclaimer to this one: I didn’t watch Unbreakable until recently, more out of personal choice than anything else. See, when this movie first hit theaters I had tons of people asking me about it because Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mr. Glass, has brittle bone disease like I do. So, for a solid year, I was the girl with the “Unbreakable disease.” It really colored me against ever wanting to see the movie, understandably.
But once I found out Split was a sequel to it, I had no choice but to bite the bullet and watch it. Shyamalan’s take on the superhero genre follows Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a man who survives a massive train crash and discovers he has superpowers. It’s Bruce Willis playing a reluctant hero and he’s very solid in the role, but the real standout is Jackson’s Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass. Speaking purely in terms of a portrayal of disability, the movie does a better job of handling it than most other films, as does Jackson. There’s a moment when Glass falls down the stairs that makes me squirm because I feel that on a whole other level. But Jackson is the perfect supervillain and I’m hoping Glass really gives him a chance to shine.
4. SPLIT (2016)
In nearly all the movies listed here there are only two you could say are anchored by a female lead, and one of them is Split. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, a troubled young girl who, along with two classmates, is kidnapped and held hostage by a man named with 23 distinct personalities, all of them played by James McAvoy. The girls must figure out a way to escape before the brutal 24th personality, referred to only as The Beast, emerges.
Shelve the fact that this fleshes out the world of heroes and villains started with Unbreakable, and Split becomes a horror movie for women. Casey and her friends have been raised in an environment where they understand what happens to the woman in the basement. Watching them band together to find a means of escape was relatable, if not in specific scenario, then at least in the spirit of their situation. The threat of sexual violence is touched on in several different ways, always with a reminder that this is something women deal with in their lives.
Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley as McAvoy’s therapist are fantastic, but it’s hard to beat what McAvoy does playing a gamut of completely distinct characters. We watch him play, among a handful of brief others, a cultured fashion designer (Barry), a tightly-wound enforcer (Dennis), an unstable British woman (Patricia), a rambunctious little kid (Hedwig), and, finally, the Beast. Though you know it’s McAvoy playing them all, he creates characters that are completely separate from each other, with their own quirks, speech patterns, and little tics. It’s a masterful performance in a movie that’s already terrifying because it starts from a real place.
3. THE VILLAGE (2004)
I have a severe soft spot for The Village, even after having the ending spoiled for me by a pre-Twitter internet critic. The film follows a group of people living in a 19th-century village who fear unseen creatures in the woods referred to only as “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” Shyamalan’s writing has never been prettier, the score has never been more ethereal, and Bryce Dallas Howard made a film debut that left me crying.
The cast assembled here consists of nothing but heavy hitters: the aforementioned Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Adrien Brody–I could go on. But what makes the film truly work is the world-building. Shyamalan takes the themes he’d focused on in prior films: societal violence, religion, nihilism, and puts them on a small town trying to create and maintain Utopia. When something terrible happens it’s up to Howard’s Ivy, a woman constantly underestimated because she’s blind, to save the day. Able to relate to her challenges, I appreciated making Ivy the lead. She’s strong, but never supernaturally strong, she’s not played as a victim, and she ultimately succeeds. It’s not flawless, and the movie’s twist is a bit overt but everything about this movie works.
2. SIGNS (2002)
Signs is another great example of how Shyamalan could create a world both familiar and extraordinary. The story of an alien invasion takes the time to show how we’d react to it – being pulled to the television, everyone discussing the aliens showing up, understandable human reactions. There’s no grand exploration of why the aliens are here. All we know is that they are, and they don’t come in peace.
But, like The Village, Shyamalan focuses on faith and how we reconcile that when things go wrong in our lives. For better or worse this is Mel Gibson at his most empathetic. He has a great camaraderie with Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin, who play his kids. A post-Gladiator Joaquin Phoenix is charming and sweet as shy Uncle Merrill. It’s proof that the director knows how to bridge the gap between fantasy/sci-fi and family drama.
1. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
The movie that made us all, for a brief moment, absolutely love M. Night Shyamalan, the tantalizing hint of a brilliant and quirky filmmaking career to come. It gave us superlative performances from Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette (QUEEN!). It terrified us with Shyamalan’s meme-worthy “I see dead people,” and it made us cry while existentially contemplating the nature of life and death–all from a movie about a little boy who sees ghosts. That’s way too much to handle! There’s been a ton written about The Sixth Sense already, but even with it approaching its twentieth anniversary it still works as Shyamalan’s masterpiece.
Will any of his movies ever top The Sixth Sense? Who knows? But there’s a good chance that Glass is the answer.
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