It's been one strange career for M. Night (born "Manoj") Shyamalan. An Indian-American auteur who seemed to come out of nowhere with the surprise 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense (though in truth he'd been building a resume since at least 1992), Shyamalan became the new toast of Hollywood only to see himself become a walking punchline only five years later. Nearly eleven years after that, he still seems to be in the doghouse - a whole generation of moviegoers only know him as a groan-inducing screen credit and the subject of countless parody memes.
In a way, all the piling on feels a bit undeserved. That's not to say that basically everything the guy has been attached to since 2004 or so hasn't been bafflingly horrible, it very much has been: Lady in The Water is like a parody of itself. The Happening is one of the stupidest, most incompetent Hollywood films ever to make it to theaters. The Last Airbender is the go-to example of how not to adapt a property to the screen.
And yet, still Shyamalan soldiers on, largely because despite the almost universal scorn that greets them, his films do still tend to make money and demonstrate that there's still an interesting, talented filmmaker in there somewhere. His latest, After Earth, is the subject of this week's Escape to The Movies, so it's as good a time as any to look back on how we got here:
Wide Awake (1995)
Five years before Sixth Sense (but unreleased until 1998), Shyamalan had his first major studio writer/director project with this archetypal (right down to the Rosie O'Donnell supporting role) slice of mid-90s kiddie treacle about a Catholic School kid going through an existential crisis wherein he goes looking for a direct answer from God to help him cope with his grandfather's death. It's not a bad movie, but it's an oddly sterile one. What would come to be M. Night's auteur hallmarks are mostly present, like the underplayed supernatural elements, slow-burn narrative, minimal characters, and clarifying last-minute reveals, but in uniformly uninvolving ways. Inoffensive, but for completists only.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
After a decade and counting of Night's name being synonymous with "overrated egomaniacal has-been," it's easy to forget just how good The Sixth Sense really was, even without the famous twist that set tongues wagging for the rest of the year. For better or for worse, this film defined Shyamalan's career from then on out. Is it pretty much just an expanded, extra-melancholy Twilight Zone episode? Yeah, but it's a damn good one. It has a great, understated performance from Bruce Willis, legitimate starmaking turn from Haley Joel Osment as the boy who "sees dead people," real scares, real emotion, and real payoff.
Night's screenplay is a minor miracle in the way it hides it's mechanics in plain sight, using an intrinsic knowledge of genre conventions and audience expectations (it doesn't occur to us that it's strange to not hear Willis' wife talk about her life in any detail, because decades of genre movies have conditioned us to consider wives and girlfriends nonexistent outside of their relationship to male heroes) to play a devious magic trick. That this film and The Last Airbender could have come from the same mind will be perplexing film students until the end of time.
I still maintain that this is Shyamalan's most underrated movie, and might still be my favorite of the lot. It's not quite as perfect in its minimalist genre deconstruction (of superhero movies, this time) as Sense was, and given the returning presence of Bruce Willis the comparisons were both unavoidable and unfavorable.
Willis plays a humble security guard asking questions about his life after inexplicably surviving (without so much as a scratch) a horrific train crash, and Samuel L. Jackson is a comic book-obsessed disabled eccentric who offers a unnerving answer: He (Willis) may be literally indestructible - a real-life Superman who simply never had the opportunity to test himself (or did he?). It's both a clever mining of superhero tropes and an intriguing "what if?" story, with Jackson giving a decidedly different sort of performance and Willis being especially compelling as a guy who's so mild-mannered the very idea of his own potential scares him to death. A lot of people held its inability to "live up" to Sense against it at the time, but if you've never seen it or haven't seen it in awhile I'd call it the M. Night movie most worth revisiting.