Dude Rates Movies

The movies of: M. Night Shyamalan


The filmography of M. Night Shyamalan can be divided in roughly 4 sections:

First, with have the first few movies with which the director made his first steps into the industry: Praying with Anger (1992) and Wide Awake (1998). I did not see them, so I won't comment further.

Second, we have the streak of amazing movies, starting with The Sixth Sense (1999) revelation. With no time to lose, Shyamalan went on with Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004). With those movies, Shyamalan establishes a consistent style of mystery thrillers, gets the recognition of critics, and gather a dedicated fanbase. In 2002, Newsweek consecrates him as no less than "The Next Spielberg".

What I like so much about Shyamalan style is his mastery at blending the surnatural into the natural. Most movies that contain surnatural things either fall into the realm of fantasy, where the action isn't really taking place in our universe, or they make the mistake of explaining too much of the underlying causes, effectively rationalizing observations with concepts that are often very convoluted. Shyamalan, on the other hand, first keeps the surnatural into bounds that are conservative enough for rational minds to keep on watching, and then plays with the characters' and the spectators' rationality by making them unsure of whether there is a plain explanation to the situation at hand, or something deeper. And even when the resolution isn't entirely natural, it somehow still feels rooted in reality, and acceptable. It is really an amazing balancing act between mystery and realism.

Most importantly, Shyamalan doesn't have the pretention to explain it all, and leaves most of it to the status of "phenomenon". This is very important, because if your rush to explain some weird observation, then you'll be bound to what your culturally-limited human imagination can guess, which will likely not match the complexity and concepts that lie deep under the phenomenon. Shyamalan doesn't need to explain from where David Dunn got it super-strong strength, because if he did so it would likely just end up as a shitty super-hero origin story. He doesn't need to explain why the aliens came to Earth in spite of being vulnerable to water[1], because if he did so it would just end up as a shitty science-fiction story. By explicitely not explaining, Shyamalan is wise and humble in front of the peculiarities of Nature, which man cannot uncover so easily.

In addition to this authorship talent, Shyamalan is also a brilliant director. There is of course is ability to scare, that is both elegant and strong in The Sixth Sense and Signs (elegant as in: no gore, no jumpscare abuse, but just a carefully crafted build-up of fear). There is also his eye for composition. Every single shot in Unbreakable has been carefully thought-out and composed and filmed. It's glorious to watch. (And one of the reasons why it's one of my favorite movie of all time.)

In 2006, Shyamalan directed Lady in the Water, which was his first misstep in a list of increasibly catastrophic projects that would basically bring his career to the edge of destruction. In my micro-review, I explain that I have no other explanation for this movie is that it is some bizarre meta satire. The truth is that I don't know how to read this movie. I can't understand how someone can demonstrate to be so clever with his first movies and then appear to be so stupid with this one, so maybe it's me lacking the genius to recognize what he was trying to do. The movie deals with some sort of fantastic quest in a setting as trivial as an appartment building, and constantly create doubt about whether it should be taken as serious or not. First by casting Shyamalan himself as a prophet in this quest, then by using music that seems parodic in moments that seem to be supposed to be taken as serious. And most importantly, by having a story so convoluted and so bad, but not bad enough to be positive about it being a satire. I don't know what the fuck was going on, and maybe Shyamalan himself didn't either.

His next movie, The Happening (2008), seemed to be struck by the same curse. People running from the wind, Mark Wahlberg talking to a plant. What the hell is going on here? Again, I'm not sure how to read the movie. I can only hope it's actually a genius depiction of a global panic when we don't understand what is happening, or maybe it was intended to be serious for characters to run from the wind. How meta Shyamalan actually is? I guess we'll never know.

In spite of those two disapointing mystery movies which both were bashed by critics, The Happening still was a commercial success, and Shyamalan decided to proceed with blockbusters instead of thrillers. But that would only bring him deeper into the spiral of critical failures. The Last Airbender (2010) is rated 5% on Rotten Tomatoes and, most importantly, was bashed by the fans of the original animated series. After Earth (2011) has 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Both movies didn't perform as expected in the box-office. I wouldn't say that the movies are terribly bad. The Last Airbender looks to me like any other child blockbuster I can't stand, and After Earth is some sort of low-key-completely-forgettable-blockbuster-you-watch-on-a-plane-to-pass-the-time-because-there-is-nothing-else. I would just say those movies are terribly bland and uninspired.

In his 2018 Drexel Commencement speech[2], Shyamalan talks about the "two versions of his life so far, both equally true": the one in which he's a brilliant filmmaker whose movies are known worldwide, and the other one in which he's a fraud who got lucky for a time. He explains that after After Earth, nobody at Hollywood wanted to work with him, which was revealed in emails from Hollywood executives that were leaked in the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, and that this brought him to the verge of financial collapse. Most importantly, he explains how he sorted out the situation.

This brings us to the fourth chapter of his filmography: The comeback. After the failure of his two blockbuster, Shyamalan borrowed $5 millions against his home to finance what was designed to be his comeback. And what a comeback. The Visit (2015) is a simple, solid, and terribly frightening thriller. Shyamalan clearly had learned the lessons from his fall. He returned to what he's best at: creating fear and mystery in the thriller genre. No big action bullshit, no such-meta-is-this-parody-or-what crap. The Visit was mostly well-received by the critics, and generated $98 millions worldwide in box-office (that is almost 20 times its budget).

Back in the game, he proceeded with Split (2016), which earned $278 millions against a $9 millions budget, and which was also liked by critics. Not only is the director financially turning lead into gold, but he's reconnecting with his fanbase. Just with a playful tease in a before-credit scene, Split reveals itself to be happening in the same cinematic universe than his beloved Unbreakable from 2000. Although I think Split lacks the elegance of the director's golden-age movies (it somehow feels more "plain"), I still enjoy it very much, and was hyped as hell when I understood it was connected to Unbreakable.

My hype was shut down when Glass came out in 2019, which is the third movie in the Unbreakable-Split-Glass trilogy, and I explain in detail in my review why I didn't like the movie at all. But I didn't like the movie in the sometimes-even-a-director-I-like-makes-a-movie-I-dislike sense and not in the oh-shit-he-is-relapsing sense. I guess that's what the "agree to disagree" expression is for: although I didn't like Glass, I still think Shyamalan got it. And you can be sure I'm waiting for his next one, Old, to come out this year.

[1] Water is a recurring element in Shyamalan's movies. In Unbreakable, David Dunn is vulnerable to water; the Lady in the Water obviously comes from... water; water is one of the four elements mastered by the last airbender.

[2] Shyamalan grew up and live in Pennsylvania and all of his movies take place (and are shot) in Pennsylvania.