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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 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.


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.


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 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.


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 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 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!

7 thoughts on “M. Night Shyamalan’s Resume Could Be Better Soon Leave a comment

  1. M. Night Shyamalan is a GENIUS! He is extremely talented and I think that it is next to impossible to transcribe that genius to the big screen. I just watched his tv series, which was really very good, but again could not convey the brilliance of his mind appropriately. I think that people should give this one a chance, if nothing else it looks creepy as hell.

    • His brilliance is on display at many angles in The Visit. The movie is great–in my Top 5 of 2015 so far. You won’t be disappointed.

  2. I just remember in a packed theater for “Inception”, they showed the trailer for “Devil” and it read “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” and everyone in the theater groaned out loud. Hoping “The Visit” is a return to his better days.

  3. If there were an Oscar for best first 1/3 of a movie, he would win it every time. The beginning of The Happening had a tense and majestically terrifying feel to it. The shot of the construction workers walking off the scaffolding was borderline Hitchcockian. The Visit looks very promising and I hope it does well…for the sake of seeing more Unbreakable.


    I’m one of those lone wolf M. Night Shyamalan supporters shouting in the loud, howling wind, trying to remind people of how talented a director he is (not “was”). He has certainly swung and missed a number of times and let his ego get the better of him–there’s no denying that–but his artistic potential was always too high for my faith to be shaken. Yes, I’m from Philadelphia so I’d have to love the guy no matter what, but this goes beyond hometown pride. I always maintained that Shyamalan is one of the more exciting American directors at work currently, and now I couldn’t be happier to see such a return to form, such a validation for him (and, selfishly, for me as one of his defenders). The Visit was a hell of an experience. One of the most thoughtful, self-reflexive, and heartfelt horror movies I’ve seen. I feel like I could watch this thing 3 or 4 more times just trying to unpack it all.

    Personally, I view this movie as a metaphor for Shyamalan’s career as he attempts to move forward, and if you go into the film with that in mind, I think you’ll find a lot to chew on. Don’t wanna say any more than that, though.

    This seems like the ignition at the start of an upward trajectory for Shyamalan. Already looking forward to the next one.

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