The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan

The trajectory of M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial career is at a bit of a low point right now and it’s held there for around seven years. The release of the Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi pic After Earth this Friday will either continue that trend or reverse it. We’ll have our answer soon, but today we’ll explore the history of this important filmmaker and how we’ve gotten to the point Shyamalan is currently at.

At the age of 22, he made his directorial debut with Praying with Anger, which was never released for wide distribution and played the festival circuit. Per usual, M. Night wrote the feature as well. Shyamalan cast himself as the star of the picture which focused on Indian culture (the director was born in the country, but grew up in Pennsylvania). Released in 1992, Anger managed to gross $1.4 million and was shot on an $800,000 budget.

The moderate success of his first picture led to 1998’s Wide Awake, a dramedy starring Denis Leary, Dana Delany, and Rosie O’Donnell. Awake began M. Night’s trend of setting films in his adopted home state. It received mixed reviews and never really got much of a theatrical release. Shot in 1995 on a $6 million budget and released three whole years later, it earned a tepid $282,000.

Based on his first two efforts, there was really no reason to believe Shyamalan would break out in the Hollywood scene in a major way. However, then 1999 came along and changed everything. This happened in the form of The Sixth Sense, released stateside on August 6, the director’s 29th birthday. Starring Bruce Willis and child actor Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense became the most buzzed about summer 1999 title. The supernatural thriller about young Osment seeing dead people struck an unexpected chord with audiences and critics. It currently sits at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.

An absolutely astonishing $293 million gross domestically and $672 million worldwide would be the result. 11 year-old Osment received an Oscar nomination, as did Toni Collette playing his mother. Willis was snubbed in my view for a Best Actor nomination. Most importantly, Sense earned a Best Picture nomination and nods for Shyamalan for his direction and original screenplay.

The Sixth Sense immediately vaulted Shyamalan into a superstar among directors. Even most blockbuster films don’t earn their director a ton of name recognition. This was not the case here. There were Hitchcock and Spielberg comparisons as critics and moviegoers marveled at the ingenious screenplay and, of course, the surprise ending was truly surprising. That ending assisted in getting audiences back for repeat viewings, which no doubt contributed to its gargantuan box office numbers.

The goodwill garnered by Sense would cause a breathless anticipation for Night’s follow-up, which hit multiplexes just fifteen months later. In November 2000 came Unbreakable, with Bruce Willis returning in the starring role and assisted by Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Wright Penn. As much as I love Bruce Willis, he’s never been a consistent box office draw when you examine his filmography. Shyamalan’s name propelled Unbreakable to a fantastic $30 million opening. However, the picture showed the first chink in the armor of Night’s invincibility. Audiences weren’t thrilled with it, at least not anywhere to the extent of Sixth Sense. While moviegoers were blown away with the “he’s been dead the whole time” shock value of that surprise ending, the revelation of Bruce’s character in Unbreakable being a superhero didn’t wow folks. Unbreakable would earn $95 million domestically – a far cry from its predecessor’s numbers. It would receive mixed reviews and is at 68% on the Tomato meter.

My take? I really dug Unbreakable. I found it to be a very clever superhero origin story and subsequent viewing have elevated my view of it. Like most first-time watchers, I found myself confused at the direction the film took in my theater experience. But I’ve grown to appreciate Unbreakable and consider it to be a worthwhile experience that once again features assured direction and a fine Willis performance.

Less than two years later, Night would be back in Sixth Sense territory with another audience and critical triumph. Arriving in the summer of 2002, Signs was maybe or maybe not an alien invasion flick as the trailers toyed with us in brilliant fashion. Starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix as farmers who notice strange crop dust patterns in their field, Signs was a suspenseful and seriously clever genre pic that delivered. When we find out that Signs is indeed an alien invasion pic via that birthday party in Mexico, it is film magic of the highest order. This is my favorite Shyamalan movie and one of 2002’s greatest titles. Signs would bring in a domestic gross of $227 million – less than Sixth Sense, but still terrific. It’s Tomato Meter is at 74%.

Two years later, the summer of 2004 would bring The Village, set in the 19th century and featuring creatures in the woods terrorizing a village. Or… is the movie about that? The Village would feature much of what we had come to expect from Night’s works, especially the surprise ending. However, it was The Village that also began to accentuate issues with his pictures: actors delivering their lines with zero emotion, dialogue that could be laughable at spots, and pacing that took a little too much time. The director’s name would allow The Village a $114 million domestic gross. Not bad, but nowhere near Sense or Signs levels. And audiences disliked it even more than Unbreakable. Critics weren’t wild about it either with a 43% Rotten Tomatoes total. I certainly found it to be the weakest of his mainstream features up to that point, but I thought it was OK overall. Still, The Village was the origin point of a downward spiral that has yet to reverse.

The summer of 2006 would end Night’s solid box office run and it would decimate his standing with critics as well. Lady in the Water, starring Paul Giamatti and Village costar Bryce Dallas Howard, landed with a thud. Focusing on an apartment complex maintenance man who finds a water nymph in the pool, Lady was simply bizarre. In many spots, it was badly written and featured truly laughable dialogue along the way. It tanked at the box office with only $42 million domestically, as well as an embarrassing 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. The excitement that Night had built with The Sixth Sense and Signs was gone and his name connected to a movie was no longer a selling point.

Night’s 2008 summer film The Happening starring Mark Wahlberg wouldn’t help the situation. While the picture, which is basically about plants turning people into homicidal maniacs, outdid Lady‘s gross with $64 million – audiences hated it on the same level. The critics were brutal and a 17% Tomato meter evidenced that. There are times watching The Happening where you’re totally cracking up unintentionally. Pretty sure that’s not what Shyamalan was going for. Wahlberg, a very talented actor, is also just awful in it. The combination of Lady in the Water and The Happening had severely soured Night’s reputation, less than a decade after The Sixth Sense made him one of the most famous directors on Earth.

Shyamalan would move away from scary and twisty thrillers with The Last Airbender, released in the summer of 2010. He would also move away from his screenplays being based on original material. Airbender was based on a Nickelodeon series and aimed squarely at a kid/young adult audience. Somewhat surprisingly, the picture grossed a rock solid $131 million domestically, Night’s highest earner statewide since Signs. It is worth noting that its American gross was less than its budget, which was a hefty $150 million. The movie would do little to improve Night’s reputation, however. Only 6% – yes six percent – of critics deemed it worthy of view on Rotten Tomatoes.

And that brings us to this weekend’s release of After Earth. This film is not based on Night’s original idea… it’s actually based on Will Smith’s idea that he brought to the director. Shyamalan did co-write the script for the sci-fi pic that comes with a $130 million budget. After Earth is notable in its advertising campaign. As it should, it focuses mainly on the fact that it’s a Will Smith sci-fi flick. The difference for Night this time around? Nowhere does it focus on him. At all. It’s almost as if the studio doesn’t want you to know he directed it… like it’s more of a hindrance than a selling point. It was less than a decade ago that the possibility of that would have been ludicrous.

Times have changed for Night, however. And the question that will be answered this Friday is whether After Earth continues the bad news for the director or reverses the audience and critical distaste for him.

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