How does Shyamalan’s resume measure up?
When he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan was widely regarded as one of the most promising new directors in Hollywood. But his career since has had more than its share of ups and downs, resulting in successes like Unbreakable and critical and commercial duds like The Happening.
Having made a self-funded resurgence – a trail that began by taking out a $5 million dollar loan to make 2015’s The Visit and then using The Visit’s profits to make another low-budget scare-fest, 2016’s Split – Shyamalan is now back on top, so to speak. He’s still making quaint films when compared to the MCU blockbusters, for example, as his latest film, Glass, only came with a $20 million price tag,
With Glass opening huge, completing an Unbreakable trilogy which none of us thought was possible a few years ago, we figured it was the perfect opportunity to rank the films in Shyamalan’s resume. From 1998’s Wide Awake to the recent return of Unbreakable’s David Dunn and Elijah Price, here’s a rundown of the director’s films, from weakest to strongest. (Note: This list only includes films that Shyamalan has directed.)
Watch the video for seven things you didn’t know about Unbreakable and Split.
After Lady in the Water disappointed most audiences and critics, Shyamalan had something to prove. We’re not sure what he proved with The Happening, but it wasn’t that he was capable of tackling Hitchcock-style suspense. Nor did this film prove that Shyamalan’s brand of horror benefited from venturing into R-rated territory.
The Happening starred Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher who flees Philadelphia in the wake of mass suicides across New England. Joining him are his wife (Zoey Deschanel), friend (John Leguizamo), and friend’s daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) as they seek refuge in the countryside. Naturally, there’s a trademark Shyamalan twist involving the real source of the “disease” afflicting humanity. But as far as twists go, it was pretty laughable and worked to basically undo the entire movie.
Animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender boasts a complex, engrossing mythology and stylish action as it chronicles the adventures of a boy named Aang and his fellow “Benders,” who can manipulate one of the four elements, bending fire, air, earth, and water to their will.
By all rights, this source material should have made for a fantastic summer blockbuster. And it was a unique opportunity for Shyamalan to dabble in a larger franchise rather than working with his own stories and characters. Instead, Shyamalan managed to turn it into one of the worst movies of 2010. And mind you, this was the same year that Marmaduke and Sex and the City 2 were released. It was always an uphill battle attempting to cram an entire season’s worth of mythology into one two-hour movie. Even so, The Last Airbender is a nonstop barrage of exposition and information. Worse, most of the performances are stilted and awkward, pretty much killing the strong character dynamics of the show. About all The Last Airbender had going for it were the nifty special effects.
Many fans assume The Sixth Sense was Shyamalan’s first directorial effort. But Wide Awake was his first film to see wide release, arriving one year before Sixth Sense scared the pants off of moviegoers everywhere. Wide Awake is a much different sort of film from the usual Shyamalan fare, which in itself makes the movie worth checking out if you have the time.
Wide Awake is equal parts comedy and drama. It features a young boy named Joshua (Joseph Cross), who embarks on a quest to find God after the death of his grandfather. Guiding him along his journey are his parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delaney) and a helpful prep school nun (Rosie O’Donnell). The end result of this rumination on religion and dying as seen through the eyes of a child is a mixed bag. On one hand, the movie sports a lot of stereotypical, broadly drawn characters and has a tendency towards melodrama. The main character is the sort of ultra-precocious child you only ever find in Hollywood movies. But on the other hand, Wide Awake shows ambition and a willingness to explore sensitive topics most family-friendly comedies shy away from.
Taking a big leap into dystopian sci-fi, though still telling as intimate and personal a story as he could within that genre, Shyamalan took a wild swing in 2013 with After Earth. Perhaps even more risky, at the time, was the casting of Will Smith and son Jayden in the two key roles, with Smith Sr.’s part not as prominent as moviegoers initially thought when heading in to theaters.
Though set a full millennia after human beings abandoned an uninhabitable Earth, After Earth is a tried and true “rite of passage” story about a boy who must become a man while braving the savage wilderness. It’s equal parts effective and clunky, with both thrilling action sequences and not-so-stellar CGI, providing fans with the director’s best effort in years. Though still not one worthy of a full comeback.
After four straight movies that focused on varying combinations of horror, the paranormal, and shocking plot twists, it was time for something different from Shyamalan. Though Lady in the Water still has elements of horror, it was billed as more of a modern fairy tale. Bryce Dallas Howard reunited with Shyamalan to play Story, a water nymph discovered in an apartment swimming pool by the building’s caretaker (Paul Giamatti). Along with the rest of the building’s residents, the caretaker must learn why the nymph has appeared and protect her from a terrifying enemy.
Lady in the Water was pretty well panned by critics for the weak characters who were practically walking plot devices. The fact that Shyamalan cast himself as a writer whose work was destined to change the world only added fuel to the fire. Also, the film’s primary human villain being a cranky film critic didn’t help either. The phrase “self-indulgent” was thrown around a lot. But to be fair, the movie was still a showcase for Shyamalan’s distinct directorial style, with camera angles precisely tuned to extract the maximum amount of emotion or tension from a scene. And there was a certain appeal in seeing Shyamalan tackle a different genre for once.
Fans of Shyamalan know well his intimate obsession with dangers within the home. Aliens, psychos, monsters – all things the director’s had attack people within the confines of their so-called safe spaces. So it’s no surprise that he took his own sinister stab at “found footage” horror with the meagerly-budgeted, self-financed The Visit.
The story centers on two teens who are sent away to spend a week with their estranged grandparents. Deciding to record their time with these old people they’ve never met, the two kids discover some truly terrifying things happening inside the house, involving people who are family. It’s a tremendous blend of scares and laughs, with the format designed to unnerve us and keep us on edge, tapping into our dark fears of the familiar becoming terrifyingly unfamiliar.