How M. Night Shyamalan Went from a Good Director to a Bad Joke

I knew M. Night Shyamalan's career was over when I saw Inception. More specifically, during the previews. The audience erupted in laughter when they saw his name as the mind behind Devil (or as I like to call it, Someone's in the Elevator with Satan!). The man whose name once brought anticipation had become synonymous with embarrassment. 

This was even before Night had further debased himself with The Last Airbender, which managed to check off all the following boxes:

Piss off a devoted fanbaseRuin cheap 3-D once and for all (Should I thank him for this?)Get accused of racismKill a potential franchise before it got startedWin the Razzie for Worst PictureSo how did he go from being "the next Spielberg" with a slew of Oscar nominations and a surprise hit with The Sixth Sense to a Hollywood laughingstock in just 10 years?

Let's take a look.


2000: Releases Unbreakable, which is horribly mis-marketed. A quiet superhero film that's heavy on talking and atmosphere and low on special effects. Its teaser trailer is incredibly effective but promised a "thriller with a secret" bound to disappoint its audience. Yet the initial perceived failure led this to become the only film Shyamalan directed to have its reception increase over time.

2002: Releases Signs, which is a huge hit with a major flaw in its plot: the alien invaders are allergic to water, which makes you wonder why they would come to a planet that's more than 70 percent water. Yet the family drama stuff works, mainly because of the cast, including a perfect pre-crazy pair of Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. But here's where the trouble starts: Shyamalan seems to dismiss every criticism, valid or invalid, and barrels straight ahead with his next doomed project. 

2004: Releases The Village, with a twist that plays like an average Twilight Zone episode at best. Yet aside from The Sixth Sense, The Village retains the most control over its atmosphere. Still, the scares aren't that scary, and some of the dialogue is kind of laughable. People begin to wonder if he can direct but ought to leave the screenplay to someone else. Nope. Shyamalan makes sure his failures are entirely his own. It's kind of brave if it weren't so dumb.

2006: Releases Lady in the Water, a movie that evolved out of a story he told his daughters. His marriage with the audience has now completely fallen apart. No more putting on a happy face. We want out. It's a bad movie, but my favorite kind of bad movie: It's so ridiculous but so committed to its own loony ideas that you have to give it some credit. It's perversely self-indulgent, featuring Shyamalan in a major role as an author who thinks his next book will change the world"”as opposed to the cameos he used to do"”and a film critic (Bob Balaban) getting killed. At this point, Shymalan's head was so far up his own ass he could no longer hear the deafening criticism.  

2008: Releases The Happening, which is one of the most hilariously awful movies I've ever seen. It's an instant punchline. The twist that the wind, of all things, is responsible for murdering people is not even in the top 5 of things wrong with it. This was the first time Shyamalan made a movie that received an R rating. While many took this as a hopeful sign, that maybe this would be more intense than the utterly silly Lady in the Water, it didn't much matter. It was still relatively bloodless, which is a common problem in his movies. Unlike his hero Steven Spielberg, he doesn't know how to show savagery without sanding down all the edges.

2013: Releases After Earth, the final nail in the coffin. Many problems could have been solved if he hadn't let Will Smith hijack it as a vanity project/vacation trip for his son Jaden. Even with a new pair of stars, it would still be a cheap-looking paper-thin story that's actually too simple for its own good. Thankfully there's no egregious twist here, but it's truly awful in every possible way.

Can Shyamalan's career ever recover? I doubt it, but if there's any hope for it, I think his best option is to go into hiding/semi-retirement for a while and think about the past decade. Then, maybe, do a straightforward, low-budget drama. (He wants to work with Bradley Cooper. He should be available in a few years.) But his tentpole days are definitely over. He's not bankable; he's not creative, and he needs some time off to reflect on why.  


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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