Perspectives on M. Night Shyamalan


The reason M. Night Shyamalan is so important is he demonstrates how twisted the film industry really is. Here’s a guy who is a complete failure, while somehow continuing to be a success (financially that is). He went from “the next Hitchcock” to Brett Ratner territory. There aren’t many who can claim such a career arc.

His career has followed a fascinating path: he burst onto the scene with Sixth Sense, made a ton of money and won some pretty decent critical acclaim (I think he even got an Oscar nod). Then he made Unbreakable, my (my personal favorite) which didn’t do as well in the BO. Then came Signs, a great movie if you ask me despite the lame special effects.

After these three movies, everyone thought Shaymalan was the next big thing in film. His films were more or less respected by critics, and audiences loved them. What’s interesting to me is that Shaymalan seemed to misunderstand why, exactly, audiences (or least this guy) loved those first three movies so much. I’ll come back to that.

Then came the masterful disaster of The Village/Lady in the Water era. As everyone knows, critics were pretty cruel to The Village. Most people thought it was just a bump in the road for an obviously talented director, except of course, for M. Knight himself who decided that critics didn’t matter. Fair enough.

Then came the whole Lady in the Water debacle. Basically Disney knew it would be terrible so they ordered rewrites, he siad no, took the picture to Warner Bros. and some dude wrote a book about it. Everyone hated the movie and it bombed. The end.

But not really. Instead of going back to his roots and making the kind of movies he was actually good at (which, again, I’ll throw out my opinion of what kind of movie that is exactly in a little bit) he just went straight up crazy. Everyone has hated everything he has produced since LITW, and he seems totally fine with it. There’s the killer grass movie, The Last Airbender, and now After Earth (which seems to have solidified his downfall).

The funny thing is, his movies still make money, which is why he keeps making them.

Now, after reflecting on M. Night’s career, it struck me as oddly similar to the story of Orson Wells. Not because they are the same, but because they are the exact opposite. Orson Wells, as everyone knows, made Citizen Kane, largely considered to be the greatest film of all time (a statement I’m willing to stand by, even though there are plenty of haters out there) and his career never recovered from it. You see, the film was such a scandal at its release that studios were always weary of what Mr. Wells was up to with his next project (that and he was apparently very difficult to work with). His movies continued to be innovative, but the studio system hated him so much that they virtually ran him out of Hollywood.

Wells’ story is seriously one of the most depressing things you’ll ever hear. He died alone, claiming he was never able to make the movies he wanted to and recognizing he had wasted his life away. One of the most influential filmakers of all time, and no one would cut him a break.

In fact, LITW and Citizen Kane have some things in common. Both were huge gambles on the part of their directors, and they were financial failures largely because of the public controversies that surrounded them.

The one big important difference? Kane was an amazing film and everyone who actually saw it knew it. Lady in the Water was terrible. Orson Wells never gets another solid movie deal, MNS gets bigger and bigger budgets.

So there you have it. M. Night’s career is basically Hollywood’s way of repeatedly spitting on Orson Wells’ grave.

Now for advice to MNS. His best films – Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs – are not great because of their “twists”, or even their creepiness. I think they are great because they explore in interesting ways how adults interact with, and relate to, children. All three of those movies are centered around a man who is struggling to understand and protect a young boy. In Sixth Sense it’s the therapist and his dead dude seeing patient. In Unbreakable it’s the superhero and his son. In Signs it’s the faithless father and his son(s). They are all from the perspective of a man struggling to resolve his own problems, while attempting to not alienate his relationship with his son/patient.

In other words, he does sentimental really well.

So it seems to me that MNS only has one story to tell, and he realized that early on. That must have scared him, even though it shouldn’t have. A lot of great directors tell similar stories in their movies. PT Anderson is almost always exploring familial relationships and moral corruption. Peter Wier mostly told stories where characters are ripped from their narrow world view to see a bigger more important purpose to everything. Shaymalan just needed to learn to get more creative while telling the same story. He was doing a great job, for a while.

Instead, of course, he decided his talent was in “twists” and eeriness. Those are two trademarks that grew old the moment the credits rolled in The Village.

So it looks now like he’s taken a different path. He now directs terrible summer blockbusters that people will continue to love to hate. What a shame.



  1. feinmemmy · May 31, 2013

    If I remember my MNS history correctly, I believe he made “Lady in the Water” because it was a story that he told to his children (I think he has daughters) and so he passionately wanted to capture that on film. It could be that he was carrying on his theme from the first few movies, but in a very personal way with that film, and when that flat-lined he decided to abandon the theme for killer grass.

    (Side note: In “Signs” it is a son, daughter, and brother, not sons.)

    • JJ Feinauer · May 31, 2013

      Oh man, thats a great point. That makes LITW seem a lot more interesting.

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