Never before have I experience the type of drastic shift from confidence to disdain for a director as I have for M. Night Shyamalan over the last twenty years. It was twenty years ago this week, on August 6th of 1999 that his third feature film, The Sixth Sense, opened in theaters. I haven’t watched his first two films and am saving those for a later date because from all accounts The Sixth Sense was a significant sea change for the creator. It was the movie that made him into the household name he’s become, for better or worse. In honor of this twentieth anniversary, I decided to rank M. Night’s pictures.
From my review: What struck me the most on this viewing was how measured and quiet the film was. This was a couple of years before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would shift the movie superhero paradigm, and the late 1990s were very unkind to the genre. There is a deliberate sense of grounding the fantastic, but not in a way that disparages their roots. Comic books are lauded through the picture, but the conceit of the film is these four-color tales are exaggerations of a more sedate reality. Yes, David Dunn is incredibly strong, but that means he can lift around 400 lbs, not an entire jet airliner. The super-heroics of Unbreakable are not global or against alien hordes. The evil that is being pointed out is racism, rape culture, sociopathic violence.
I also found myself reconnecting with every character in the film. The aforementioned quiet moments are always character-centered and are intended to build on what we know, either adding to our knowledge or subverting it. We deeply understand the strained relationship between David and Audrey, the admiration of Joseph for David, the tug of curiosity Elijah elicits from David. No character ever makes a move that feels contradictory to what is previously established and so you find yourself floating effortlessly through this organic story. There is the now cliche Shyamalan twist, but it doesn’t play as contrived. It fits with the groundwork lain through the entirety of the film. It also does something I find myself to drawn to more these days: forgoing having a purely black and white conflict.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
I was chilled by this movie when I saw it in theaters, it was the first movie I saw during my freshman year of college. Bruce Willis is playing things quiet and does some of his best work, mainly when you reflect on the downturn of his career in the 2000s and 2010s. Haley Joel Osment helps rehabilitate the lousy reputation child actors have, well for some of them. You also have Toni Collette coming off a fantastic indie career throughout the 1990s. M. Night does an incredibly good job controlling the atmosphere of this movie, allowing his third act to unfold in a surprising way where we go from a horror picture to a genuinely moving drama. The characters in The Sixth Sense are so well painted that it stands in stark contrast to later work from the director.
This was the movie where I started to see the cracks in M. Night’s work, particularly the contrivances that lead to his trademark twist endings of the time. It’s not a bad movie, the acting is held up by Mel Gibson and a young Joaquin Phoenix. You also have Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin as the kids, not as good as Haley Joel in Sixth Sense but decent. The plot concerns an alien invasion that is hinted at and finally revealed as happening mainly in urban areas, not where our main characters reside. Gibson plays a former minister who lost his faith when his wife was killed during a traffic accident. The thematic aspects of the plot are about how this minister and father regains his fate as he deals with this fantastic assault on Earth. This is definitely an M. Night alien invasion movie as it plays things subtle, well an M. Night film from this period in his career.
This is one of the few decent M. Night films of his later work but isn’t one I love. The protagonist is Casey, a teenage girl with horrible trauma in her past. After a birthday party she attends due to a pity invite, Casey is given a ride home by the birthday girl’s dad as well as the bday girl and a friend. They get stopped in the parking lot by an assailant who kills the father and brings the girls to his basement lair. We learn his name is Kevin, and he suffers from disassociative personality disorder having 23 differing personas living in his mind. Casey begins to realize she’s going to have to fight her way out and manipulate the voices in Kevin’s head. The premise here is interesting and Anya Taylor Joy, who plays Casey, is one of the great young actors of our time, so she’s always great to watch. James McAvoy is chomping up the scenery, flexing his acting muscles to shift into each distinct personality. But the film doesn’t have those light touches of M. Night movies past, and everything here is so on the nose. His portrayal of mental illness is ham-fisted and borderline offensive at points, which contrasts so severely with the sensitivity shown in The Sixth Sense. This isn’t a terrible movie, but there are a lot of dissonant moments that pull you out of it.
The Village (2004)
This was the M. Night movie that showed the cracks in the rich veneer for me. I wanted to love this movie, but the more I came back to the weaker it felt and the more contrived the twist felt. This is another female protagonist, Ivy, a blind woman who is the daughter to the Chief Elder of a 19th century Pennsylvania village. Everyone in the town remains within the boundaries of the settlement telling their children that monsters lurk in the surrounding forests. Sure enough, the cloaked creatures, resembling humanoid porcupines emerge when they are disturbed the village goes into lockdown. The cast here should have resulted in a great movie: Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendan Gleeson. These are good to great actors. But it’s M. Night’s story that kicks their legs out from underneath them focused so badly on revealing a Twilight Zone-style twist that it sucks anything of import out of the rest of the picture.
This was the first movie from our director that had me hoping we could get a return to his more muted tone of filmmaking. Unbreakable is a monumental film, the best comic book movie, in my opinion. Then I saw Glass and realized we had lost that old M. Night and he just wasn’t coming back. Despite being called Glass, the film doesn’t spend much time with the fragile villain Elijah Glass. He plays a significant role in the third act but just sits catatonic for most of the movie. The infamous twist ending rears its head here and might be one of M. Night’s worst, coming totally out of the left-field, introducing an enemy that the rest of the movie never once hinted at. It is one of the cheapest endings I’ve ever seen and truly made Glass an unwatchable film. There are some decent production design decisions, but honestly, you can google pictures of that if you want. It takes less time, and you aren’t forced to be disappointed.
After Earth (2013)
From my review: It is tough to ignore that After Earth is a big-budget vanity project that highlights all the problems with letting movie stars get blank checks from studios. M. Night even expressed regret after the fact that he became involved in the project and I do give him some credit because this was more a Will Smith-driven project and doesn’t have the telltale marks that a terrible M. Night movie possess. Jayden Smith is a bad actor. I can’t speak for his performances as a young child, though child actors often get a pass for flawed acting. Here, with Jayden front and center for 90% of the picture, you just cannot ignore how out of his depth he is, unable to convey a single realistic emotion.
The Happening (2008)
Now, this is an objectively horrible movie, but it is one of my favorite M. Night movies, and I have rewatched it multiple times in the context of a comedic farce. I saw this film in a theater in Puerto Rico with my then-fiancee, now wife. It was one of the few cinematic experiences where I had no problem with people talking during the movie. At one point we could see a boom mike in the shot, something I think has been fixed in the DVD/Blu-Ray releases. Mark Wahlberg should have won an Academy award for planning a wholly alien being posing as a human. His decisions on line delivery are some of the most comical I’ve heard. It doesn’t help that M. Night has gone entirely off the rails and is trying to convince this horrible film is a good, tense thriller. The antagonist is literally the wind which could be handled interestingly by a more thoughtful director, but here it is merely an excuse to just do weird, ludicrous things. I wish I could say M. Night was a genius and this was all intentional but looking at his body of work as a whole, no, he thought this was a grade-A scary picture.
The Last Airbender (2010)
I have never watched the entirety of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, but from all accounts, I hear it is fantastic. All of that potential for a great film went down the toilet when M. Night became attached as director. Well, you might say, he was just working with the script the studio gave him. He wrote the screenplay, no other name attached, only his. M. Night attempts to cram an entire season’s worth of stories, twenty episodes, into a 100-minute movie. The film also goes cheap on special effects in certain scenes, like when we’re introduced to the Earth benders. Even the show’s creators advised people not to go see the movie because it completely missed the heart of the series. When asked about the insanely short runtime for so much content M. Night tried to say because he made 90-minute thrillers that have a runtime he was more comfortable with, an incredibly baffling excuse.
Lady in the Water (2006)
This film has the honor of being the one that made me completely give up on M. Night ever making a good film again. Lady in Water was based on a bedtime story he allegedly told his children, which just makes me feel sorry for his kids. Cleveland Heep is the superintendent for an apartment complex that is visited by Story, a narf (naiad-like) being on the run from Scrunts and trying to return to the Blue World. If that plot synopsis doesn’t have you doubting M. Night’s worldbuilding abilities, I don’t know what will. The whole film is one big “what a twist!”-a-thon that even has a movie critic character get killed by the scrunts as M. Night’s middle finger to the legitimate critics of the deteriorating quality of his work. Lady in the Water is the official decree that this director was creatively bankrupt and just going to keep churning out garbage for the foreseeable future.
The Visit (2015)
The worst movie M. Night has given us. First, it was billed as a frightening horror experience. Then, when people finally saw it and laughed at how dumb the whole thing was, M. Night said here’s the twist, it’s supposed to be a comedy. Yeah, so the intentional jokes in the picture fall incredibly flat, particularly the rapping young brother. The plot is telegraphing its twist from the beginning by putting in such horrible plot contrivances to make itself work. The mom, estranged from her grandparents after a falling out, sends her kids to visit them without going to drop them off herself, ensuring she doesn’t see them until a third act Skype call. Complete uninteresting trash.