Why I think M. Night Shyamalan is (mostly) a good director.
It seems that the general consensus about M.Night is that he hadn’t made a good film since Unbreakable (2000), bar his recent success of Split (2016). I tend to disagree. I must admit I have yet to watch his debut film Praying with Anger (1992) and the subsequent Wide Awake (1998), but I remember the first time I watched The Sixth Sense (1999). I was only 9 when it was released so it must have been a couple of years afterwards. I recall vividly how frightened I was, as one would imagine it would be for a child. I also recall the completely naïve shock I experienced at the films twist at the end. I believe this would have been my first experience of an anagnorisis plot twist within a film. Shortly followed by Fight Club (1999) which my Dad ruined for me…thanks Dad. And then The Others (2001). It wasn’t until writing this that I’ve come to realise that I’m clearly a big fan of anagnorisis plot twists.
Now watching The Sixth Sense as an adult, I’m still a fan.
I don’t think there is much dispute over the success of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. I want to talk to you about some of less successful films, being Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening.
I will admit I was right to avoid After Earth (2013) and The Last Airbender (2010), I watched them specifically for this article and they are terrible. Why M. Night decided it was a clever idea to venture into huge production and CGI laden action sci-fi/fantasy films I do not understand. I’m glad he got the message and went back to what he does best. The entire of After Earth revolved around Will Smith directing his idiot son (Jaden Smith) through a now evacuated and dangerous Earth, and getting pissed off because he won’t stop being such a whiney idiot. Why they cast Will Smith as a character that does nothing but sit and speak dialogue I also do not understand, he’s a decent actor and his talent was wasted on a role that involved almost no action or emotional expression.
The Last Airbender I switched off half way through, am I still in a good position to form an opinion, I think so. M. Night’s best films are where the science fiction or fantasy is more implied than seen. Lady in the Water is a good example of this. Whilst many were insulted by the poor adaptation from the animated series, I personally have not seen any of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008), being as I was 15 years old when the series started, I don’t believe I was the intended audience. Nevertheless, taken as a standalone film, it was an utter failure too. Too often do we see these “style over substance” films, yes the film was nice to look at but that is all it had going for it. Airbender was trite and cringe worthy. The film was soaked in exposition, forced “comedy” and the acting was of a very poor standard. You have to ask, did M. Night even want to make this film? So in this regard, I am in agreement with you all, After Earth and The Last Airbender are shit. Swiftly moving on…
I actually feel that Signs (2002) is the weakest of the four films I wish to discuss, yes, you did read that correctly, I feel Signs is a weaker film than The Happening. Hear me out. I think my biggest issue with Signs, and many people agree, was the plot holes. If you take the film at face value then yes, there is a considerable amount of silliness. On the other hand, I feel that Signs is not deserving of the brutally negative reviews it has received. M. Night has great storytelling ability, even if the premise is ridiculous. Signs is visually impressive and the score works well to ramp up the suspense. Unlike in The Last Airbender, the comic relief works! It works not only to break tension but it actually made me laugh, instead of recoiling into a ball of cringe. Signs is not a monster movie, it’s a story of grief and of Hess’ (Mel Gibson) loss of faith. The “alien invasion” serves as a tool to direct Hess’ journey back to God. M. Night ties Hess’ wife’s death to this invasion as a testimony to predeterminism and this is why this film as some great elements to it. If you think this film is about aliens, then yes, you will hate it.
Now, let me tell you why The Happening (2008) is a more successful film compared to Signs. It is more successful in that M. Night achieved exactly what he intended to. He made a B-movie. If you are familiar with his work you will realise that his films are nuanced in that, much like Signs, you should never take them at face value. You should not take The Happening to be a serious film. The Happening is a comedy, and once you realise that, there is some brilliance to this film. Even Roger Ebert praised it. I personally think the film has a great premise, humans are shit, the plants agree and decide to kill us all. Really this was about plants forming a defence mechanism (as many life forms do) against its main threat, being us. The film follows Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma (Zooey Deschanel) fleeing from what seems to be a hopelessly inescapable situation and in this sense it has similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which M. Night stated the film was supposed to be an homage too, as well as other classic 1950s/60s B-movies. It is just a great shame that this was lost on the majority of the audience, even on Mark Wahlberg himself. If Wahlberg had been aware of his wooden performance and comedic timing I would have hailed him a genius, turns out, it was just a happy coincidence.
When I first watched Lady in the Water (2006) it was from the recommendation of my Mum who I recall was very moved by it. I’m completely unashamed to admit that I was very moved too, and when the credits rolled I blubbered like a baby. And I am ashamed to admit I was one of those douchebags proclaiming, “You just don’t get it!” Lady in the Water is a fantasy tale, a live action bedtime story. The film is confined to an apartment complex and centres on superintendent Cleveland Hepe (Paul Giamatti). After discovering Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in the apartment complex’s pool, he searches the building for answers to solve a mystery, which is crucial to mankind’s future. I feel this film was inspired somewhat by Hitchcock. I enjoyed that the film brings together a lot of unlikely and diverse characters to give them all one singular purpose, I like the films use of comic relief and the parody of the film critic, his demise being a big fuck you to M. Night harshest critics. This film was about unconditional love, purpose and freeing your inner child and I thought it was quite wonderful. The only thing I would chastise M. Night for is his huge ego and need to write himself into his own films. In Lady in the Water, his character is of such importance that his work will change the future of mankind. Get over yourself, dude.
I’ve left The Village (2004) last as it is honestly my favourite out of these four films, even when I guessed the twist of the film. I ruined the ending for my Mum (I guess I get that from my Dad…thanks Dad), when we went to the cinema to see this and I still walked out blown away by a concept that was completely brilliant and original. Why do I think this film had such a bad reception? Well, I think people were hoping to see a horror film and they didn’t get it. You had a village living in fear of creatures that did not exist, an imagined danger. The Village was a thoughtful exploration of morals and whether shielding your loved ones from the world is the right thing to do. There was a lot of depth to this film, and on first viewing left me questioning what the real danger was. M. Night subverted expectations with this film, especially after promoting it as a horror/thriller, which is another reason why I love it. The acting is very good and the characters are believable, the romance sub plot between Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is subtle and avoids clichés. M. Night uses the mundane and the real to create something quite amazing, there were no monsters, this was just the result of an environment created by human beings. I found The Village to be almost as profound and brilliant as The Sixth Sense but I still hope for a day when M. Night outdoes himself.
So here’s to M. Night Shyamalan’s risk taking, divisive, egotistical brilliance. I am eagerly awaiting the Unbreakable sequel, Glass (2019)!