Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sean Kelly

Looking Back on the Rise (and Fall) of M Night Shyamalan


This weekend sees the release of After Earth, which is the first film directed by M Night Shyamalan since the huge flop that was The Last Airbender back in 2010.  By the time of the release of The Last Airbender, Shyamalan had become quite disliked by most of the mainstream public.  In fact, his public image is so negative that After Earth is being marketed purely as a vehicle for Will Smith and his son Jaden, with no mention of Shyamalan’s name on the poster or trailer.  Based on advanced word, it doesn’t seem like After Earth is going to do anything much to rejuvenate Shyamalan’s career (though I still plan on seeing the film).  I thought I would take the time to look back on the director’s career, which started off with such promise, yet is now a public punchline.

Not many people are familiar with Shyamalan’s first two films Praying with Anger (1992) and Wide Awake (1998), neither of which I’ve seen.  Shyamalan’s name was put on the map with a little film in 1999 called The Sixth Sense.  To put in bluntly, The Sixth Sense was a huge surprise hit that summer and it spent 5 weeks at the top of the box office.  Not only that, but the film received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Haley Joel Osment, Best Supporting Actress for Toni Collette, and Best Editing. 

Looking back now, The Sixth Sense was both the best and worst thing to happen to Shyamalan’s career.  By finding huge success so early in his career, The Sixth Sense was going to be the film that all Shyamalan’s future films were going to be judged against.  It also didn’t help that the big selling point of The Sixth Sense was the fact that the film had a twist ending.  After another twist ending was featured in his follow-up Unbreakable in 2000, it became automatically assumed by most patrons that ALL of Shyamalan’s films would feature twists.

This isn’t particularly true. Out of the five films Shyamalan directed since Unbreakable, I would say that only 2004’s The Village has a true twist ending.  The Village is probably also the point where the public’s perception of Shyamalan started to go south.  While some people were jumping off the bandwagon with 2002’s Signs (despite the film still being a success), The Village ended up angering a lot of people.  Part of it probably came from a growing ego, which had Shyamalan putting his name prominently on the film’s posters and built a fake mythology for himself through the SyFy documentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan.  Also, while The Sixth Sense’s twist shocked people, The Village’s twist only resulted in annoyance.

People were also getting fed up with Shyamalan casting himself in his films.  While his appearances began as Hitchcockian cameos, they progressively got bigger until he cast himself in a major supporting role in 2006’s Lady in the Water.  The plot revelations involving Shyamalan’s character in Lady in the Water was considered highly egotistical by many and, by the time of Shyamalan’s R-rated horror film The Happening in 2008, most people stopped caring about the director.  The huge failure of The Last Airbender in 2010, which even a Shyamalan apologist like myself wasn’t too crazy about, only served to add a nail to the coffin.  I personally thought that Shyamalan was better off as the writer/producer of 2010’s Devil, but sadly the film was collateral damage of The Last Airbender’s failure and I doubt of the other two entries of the planned Night Chronicles trilogy will ever see the light of day.

There was a time when I considered M Night Shyamalan to be one of my favourite filmmakers.  I still consider The Sixth Sense to be one of my alltime favourite films and I also quite like both Signs and The Happening (despite the latter’s wooden acting).  I feel that Shyamalan is unfairly picked on, with it now being “cool” to hate the director.  I don’t only even know if the general public these days even remembers the success of The Sixth Sense, which made Shyamalan an Oscar-nominated director.  I also find it quite tasteless that many internet commenters resort to casual racism and purposely misspell, India born, Shyamalan’s last name as things like “Shyamaldingdong.”  It’s one thing to dislike a man’s films, but please leave his ethnicity alone.

A lot of people seem predisposed to hate Shyamalan’s films these days and the advanced reviews for After Earth seem to be a clear sign of that.  That said, I have never let poor reviews influence by decision to see a film.  While the public’s opinion of Shyamalan dropped, I still supported the director and went to see every one of his films.  While I questioned my devotion after The Last Airbender, my faith was restored a few months later when I saw Devil.  Only time will tell whether or not my devotion to M Night Shyamalan is rewarded and After Earth turns out to be a film I enjoy, rather than the piece of garbage everyone says it is.

Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).