Few Hollywood directors have ever plunged further in a shorter period of time than M. Night Shyamalan has. He was dubbed as the next Spielberg after The Sixth Sense hit, over a decade and a half ago, and after a few follow-up box-office successes…disaster. A slow, agonizing plunge to the bottom, pockmarked with vanity-project bombs like Lady in the Water and big-budget busts like After Earth. From the heights of the Hollywood director food chain to the murky B-movie depths, it’s been as precipitous a fall as we’ve ever seen
Is there a back-to-basics resurgence on the horizon? The newest Shyamalan movie, The Visit, looks like a sublimely creepy piece of work, judging by its trailer and, with a budget around $5 million, it can’t help but be a hit. So, before The Visit – uh, visits – on Friday, let’s take a look back at the up-and-down career of one of Hollywood’s strangest directorial paths.
THE HIGH POINT
The Sixth Sense (1999) – $672 Million, 85% on Rotten Tomates
Shyamalan had only made two little-seen features before The Sixth Sense, making its staggering success (over $600 million at the box office, six Oscar nominations, yet another career revitalization for Bruce Willis) even more astonishing. Sixteen years on, and the movie still holds up – Shyamalan’s screenplay is wonderfully crafted, his direction is assured and strikingly atmospheric, and (along with The Usual Suspects) the movie is still the gold standard for the twist ending.
At this point, Shyamalan could do anything – and he chose a fascinating zig-zag of a follow-up.
THE UNDERRATED FOLLOW-UP
Unbreakable (2000) – $248 Million, 68% on Rotten Tomatoes
Unbreakable was a disappointment at the box office – not even hitting half of The Sixth Sense’s gross – but it’s grown exponentially in stature in the years following its release, and rightfully so. It’s not hard to see why it didn’t connect with the same mass audience that Sense did; Unbreakable is a slow burner of a genre study from an unfamiliar (but brilliant) angle, which is not exactly a recipe for boffo bucks.
That doesn’t make this fascinating comic-book origin story, with great performances from Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, any less great. Who knows what the box office would be today, with comic book films absolutely swamping the charts? It’s fun to wonder, and we can only hope that the rest of Shyamalan’s planned Unbreakable trilogy sees the light some day. With plenty of critical kudos behind the film – if not huge dollars – Shyamalan still possessed plenty of cache, and he went back for a more crowd-pleasing genre.
THE UNDERRATED FOLLOW-UP, PART II
Signs (2002) – $408 Million, 74% on Rotten Tomatoes
Sure, Signs has its silliness – the fact that the allergic-to-H20 aliens invaded a world made up of 70% water, for example – but the movie was so skillfully done and so, so, SO terrifying in parts (go ahead, tell me you didn’t watch that birthday party scene without screaming) that it couldn’t help to be a hit. It made $150 million more than Unbreakable did and kept him securely at the top of the Hollywood A-list.
What to do next? Well, how about another mystery film set in Pennsylvania?
THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE
The Village (2004) – $256 Million, 43% on Rotten Tomatoes
And right here is where the trouble starts. There’s a lot of good stuff in The Village – Bryce Dallas Howard and an exceptionally deep cast, most notably – but the big twist ending never connected with audiences, even if it did pretty good numbers at the box office. Shyamalan, it seemed to the public (and the critics) had gone back to the same storytelling well one too many times.
In retrospect, this was the canary in the coal mine moment.
THE PLUNGE, PT 1
Lady in the Water (2006) – $72 Million, 24% on Rotten Tomatoes
The troubled production behind Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water is even more bizarre than the movie – a fantastically garbled mess of a modern fairy tale that wastes the always great Paul Giamatti. Interested in the tale? Pick up Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices for a captivating story of Hollywood ego gone amok. Audiences could smell a bomb, and they stayed away.
THE PLUNGE, PT 2
The Happening (2008) – $163 Million, 17% on Rotten Tomatoes
After Lady in the Water, Night’s reputation and clout were plummeting right along with his movie’s box office. He still had enough of the latter to get another genre pic made. Sadly, that turned out to be The Happening – another fantastically silly sci-fi pic that almost reaches so-bad-it’s good levels, now best remembered as a Mark Whalberg bad acting reel. It did okay at the box office, but by this point, Shyamalan was out of the good graces of both critics and the audience.
He needed a big commercial hit.
THE BOTTOM FALLS OUT (Parts 1 & 2)
The Last Airbender (2010) – $319 Million, 6% on Rotten Tomatoes
After Earth (2013) – $243 Million, 11% on Rotten Tomatoes
Superficially, these aren’t bad career choices from Shyamalan. The Last Airbender was an adaptation of a popular kids franchise, the type of movie that makes $200 million by accident; After Earth had Will Smith at its head, as close to a sure thing as there is in Hollywood. Going in, you could see how these would be intelligent choices for a director whose career is on the wane.
If only the movies were any good.
The Last Airbender was an incomprehensible mess plagued by horrific 3D and a crippling casting controversy, and it made its requisite money before slinking away from theaters in shame (and winning five Razzies).
After Earth … well, yikes. At this point, Shyamalan’s career was in such tatters his name wasn’t even on the promotional materials. Maybe that was a good thing. Another convoluted and messy-looking sci-fi disaster – this one with a “Story by Will Smith” credit, with plenty of strange (and alleged Scientology) influences – the movie became a running joke about twenty minutes after it crash-landed in theaters and prompted Smith to acknowledge that it was a dud. Directing Will Smith’s first real flop probably isn’t something that’s going to lead Shymalan’s resume.
And now, The Visit. Another critical and commercial savaging or the road to redemption? We can only wait to see.
Think this will be Shymalan’s homecoming to Hollywood or will it fall flat? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below!