To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the fantastic and under appreciated Unbreakable on November 22nd, One Room With A View looks back at the director M. Night Shyamalan, his early promise, and where it all went wrong.
“I see dead people”. One of the great lines of the past few decades of film, if not in all of cinema history. A quote from The Sixth Sense, of course, the third film written and directed by young filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, and the one that unexpectedly exploded him into the public cultural consciousness in the winter of 1999 at the tender age of 29 – practically a foetus as far as Hollywood directors go. After bringing the movie sensation of the turn of the new century, Shyamalan quickly followed it up the following year with Unbreakable, a less monetarily successful (turning a mere $248m to The Sixth Sense’s $673m), but arguably better film. With so much potential shown by such a young filmmaker at the start of his career, it’s a huge shame that the quality of his output got increasingly terrible as the years wore on.
Let’s go back to the halcyon days of November 1999, and revisit the sensation that was The Sixth Sense. All anyone was talking about was that twist, which is – and if you somehow incredibly still don’t know then SPOILER ALERT – the guy in the hairpiece, it was Bruce Willis the whole film. No, in all seriousness, A) all credit for that joke must go to the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia gang, who also brilliantly misname Shyamalan as “that Slumdog bastard”, and B) Bruce Willis was, of course, a ghost all along. It’s genuinely a great ending, and if it seems hackneyed today, it’s only because The Sixth Sense was the film that made it a necessity for seemingly every film of the 2000s to have a surprise twist ending, whether appropriate or otherwise.
The rest of the film is good too, with solid turns from Bruce Willis, Toni Collette and Olivia Williams, one of the great performances by a child actor from Haley Joel Osment, as well as one of the first film roles for a young Mischa Barton (remember her?) where she does a sick on herself. It’s got genuine spooks from the dead people walking around, it’s got some real emotions running through it, it’s got that really great scene at the little girl’s funeral near the end – in short, it deserved the attention it saw at the time. However, such huge success out of the blue inevitably leaves a lot of pressure on a follow up.
Luckily, Shyamalan more than stepped up to the plate with Unbreakable in 2000. The film once again stars Bruce Willis as ex-college football star turned security guard, David Dunn. Early in the film we see Dunn survive a train wreck that kills all 131 other passengers, yet leaves him without even a scratch. Dunn writes it off as a freak coincidence, but physically fragile comic book collector Elijah Price doesn’t, and gets in contact with Dunn, believing him to be in possession of superhuman powers. Dunn doesn’t buy it, but the idea nonetheless worms its way into his thoughts and soon he finds himself testing his limits little by little, both mental and physical, just to make sure Price is definitely wrong. Little does he know…
Looking back over the past fifteen years of superhero movies, Unbreakable stands out as being way ahead of the curve. As almost every hero film nowadays attempts to show a grounded, human element to their supernatural or otherwise gifted character, as well as them crashing through skyscrapers, it’s amazing to look back and see exactly that pulled off so elegantly in the same year that X-Men was released and the genre began to take off. And it really is elegantly done – expertly paced, David’s belief and confidence in his powers is built up at an almost glacial pace in comparison to the speed that most other heroes get to grips with their skills. Despite being made before most in the genre, it’s a refreshingly down to earth, domestic superhero origin story. Unfortunately, the disappointing monetary performance made a sequel unlikely to happen, a deal M. Night proceeded to firmly seal by spending fifteen years inexorably driving his reputation so far into the ground it’s now living with the Morlocks.
This is pure speculation of course, but looking back on M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre sixteen years after his big break, you get the sense that he had been sitting on two absolutely dynamite scripts for several years, scripts that had time and care poured into them until they were as slick and polished as Elijah Price’s glass cane. It then feels as if, once these two films went down a storm and the studios pressured him for more of the same, Shyamalan wheeled out some half formed ideas he’d been working on but not fully rounded out. Signs, despite grossing highly at the box office and receiving decent enough reviews, never quite comes together in a wholly satisfying way.
It’s undoubtedly the last watchable film he put out, but doesn’t sit up there with the previous two offerings. The narrative has you feeling very spoon-fed, and though it has a couple of memorable scenes (an alien brazenly strolling past a child’s birthday party in broad daylight for example), it lacks the staying power of the twist endings. It’s commendable of Shyamalan to ditch his famous twist for such an anticipated release, but you can’t help but feel that for once it may have been necessary; the film just sort of ends, though not through anything the protagonists do themselves, leaving a slightly bland taste in the mouth.
The release of The Village in 2004 is where things began to go very wrong for M. Night. This time around, the twist ending comes so out of nowhere, and not in that enjoyably surprising “holy shit!” way – it’s actively irritating. The Village is situated in a forest in the 19th century, the townsfolk kept from leaving by their fear of the mysterious ‘monsters’ and ‘the colour red’ that surrounds them in the woods. Ivy, the blind daughter of the Chief Elder is granted permission to leave to collect medical supplies. She’s later spotted climbing over an ivy covered wall (ooh, symbolic) by a park ranger in a Jeep. Wait, what, it’s been the present day all along?! Yeah, it’s stupid – the elders bought land in the 1970s in a National Park, invented the monsters, and pay off the government to keep it a no fly zone, because the U.S. Government are always happy to let weirdo cults in the woods do whatever they like. The premise just doesn’t hold up if you think about it with any sense of logic. As Roger Ebert said in his excellent review, “To call the ending an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes”.
Quite honestly, the less said about Lady In The Water and The Happening, the better. Lady in the Water is a supremely arrogant exercise in self-indulgence, in that Shyamalan expands his usual brief cameo to a major supporting role as, in all seriousness, a visionary author whose writing changes the world for the better. Bob Balaban also features as an arrogant, cocksure film critic who meets a violent death – take from that what you will. Zero time is spent constructing the fantasy elements of the story, they’re plonked down and we’re left to just accept them. This is even more aggravating when you learn the plot is based off a bedtime story he told his children; even children expect at least a little backstory to a fantasy world. It says a lot that not even the great Paul Giamatti can scrape a grain of enjoyment out of the endless tedium of the script. As for The Happening, it’s terrible, but in a way that doesn’t even irritate, it’s so dull you just forget about it. Much like the title. The premise is weak – trees exacting revenge on humanity by releasing pheromones that force us to commit suicide – and leaves little potential for tension or drama. It’s not like a character turning a corner to be surprised by a shrub would ever be scary. Or just not plain ridiculous for that matter. It’s summed up best by the star of the film itself, Mark Wahlberg: “It was a really bad movie… Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it”. Exactly. Fucking trees, man.
And then came The Last Airbender and After Earth. Despite drawing on a hugely popular anime series with a dedicated following, The Last Airbender ended up being one of the worst films ever made, and ‘winner’ of five Razzies. Full of horrible acting, painful dialogue and hamfisted 3D effects, it’s a miserable experience whether you’re familiar with the source material or not. The already paper thin plot is further weakened by lengthy expository speeches that explain entire scenes that were cut out, due to Shyamalan apparently being unable to conceive of making a film longer than 90 minutes. It’s depressingly bad, so much so that you’ll be begging to watch something like Freddy Got Fingered or Birdemic instead, and welcome the opportunity. That, or the sweet release of death. After Earth has previously been talked about in great detail on ORWAV as part of our ‘Citizen Kane of Awful’. We’ll just note that there’s a scene where Will Smith is bleeding to death, all alone, and Jaden Smith has been poisoned and is freezing to death, alone, and you just think ‘good’, because that means you can stop watching After Earth.
There may be some light at the end of the tunnel though. The Visit, released this year seems to be not entirely terrible. With a 63% Rotten Tomatoes score, it’s not exactly had a stellar reception, but is by far the best thing he’s done in years. It may be just a one-off for all we know right now, and it’s not as good as those early works, but it could be the first step back in the right direction. Many directors make a couple of good films and then tail off, and many of them just fade into obscurity. M. Night Shyamalan, however, has been the butt of endless jokes for over a decade now, the laughing stock of Hollywood, but why? Because those first couple of films were so good, and so popular that we still genuinely hope for a return to form, are quite willing to forgive his past cinematic transgressions in exchange for a couple more great films. If you somehow ever read this Mr. Shyamalan, we’re not angry, we’re just disappointed.