M. Night Shyamalan, who isn't even 50 and who has made a dozen films, has gone through the kind of rollercoaster career few filmmakers imagine much less experience. But this is a filmmaker whose work has largely been defined by twists and turns, so it sort of makes sense. The filmmaker recently tweeted that he's almost done with a new spec script, and that's enough for us to look back at his entire filmography -- the good and the bad.
12. ‘After Earth’ (2013)
Not only Shyamalan’s worst film by a country mile but probably one of the worst films ever. This heavily hyped disaster, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden (as father and son), was supposed to be the beginning of a multiplatform franchise but by the time the film was released, Shyamalan’s reputation had become so toxic that his name was left off of all the promotional materials. A film that doesn’t feel even remotely personal, it concerns a space colonist and his son who are marooned on a desolate planet with a gooey monster that hunts through fear. If the performances weren’t wonky enough (what are those accents?), the movie’s unfinished-looking effects and sluggish pacing were enough to test the patience of any Night die-hard.
11. ‘The Last Airbender’ (2010)
Shyamalan chose to adapt the long-running Nickelodeon animated series for this, an epic besieged with problems from the get-go, including claims that he had “whitewashed” the movie’s cast. (Many characters who derive from Southeast Asian or Inuit cultures are, in the film are simply white.) But the indignity of “The Last Airbender” doesn’t stop there; Shyamalan’s handle on large-scale filmmaking remains, shall we say, loose, with the writer-director uncomfortably cramming several years of intricate mythology into an overstuffed storyline that often borders on the incoherent. It receives minor points for the genuinely beautiful effects work by Industrial Light & Magic. And that is it.
10. ‘Wide Awake’ (1998)
Before he was “The Next Spielberg,” as Newsweek infamously called him, Shyamalan was just a struggling independent filmmaker. That struggle is perfectly exemplified by “Wide Awake,” a treacly, tedious comedic drama about a ten-year-old at a Catholic boys’ school who is questioning his faith and … Ah, who cares. Unimaginative and flavorless with drab performances by Dana Delany, Rosie O’Donnell and Denis Leary, it’s incredible that his career didn’t just end here.
9. ‘Lady in the Water’ (2006)
This is definitively the start of Night’s dark period. When he submitted his script for “Lady in the Water” to Disney (the studio that had marketed and distributed his biggest hits), then-chief Nina Jacobson flatly rejected it. Instead of making changes, Shyamalan packed his bags and headed to Warner Bros. The eventual release of the film felt like an extended pity party and featured an accompanying book (subtitled “How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale”) that made him look like entitled and tone deaf. “Lady in the Water” is Night’s take on a modern fairy tale, and involves wood nymphs, giant eagles, monkeys, and lord knows what else. He says it was inspired by a children’s story he made up for his kids; it comes across like a bad Guillermo del Toro rip-off.
8. ‘Split’ (2016)
After he made the small scale found footage horror movie “The Visit,” Shyamalan was emboldened. (Interesting side note: he paid for all three of his recent films himself.) His next move was “Split,” a kind of De Palma-esque thriller about a man with multiple personalities who abducts a host of young girls (one of them, Anya Taylor-Joy, is more than what she seems in typical Night fashion). His score was broadened (he shed the found footage aesthetic) but the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together like it used to, and you wish he’d had more money to make the movie as gorgeous as his earlier films. Still, a mid-credits sequence revealed what could be the ultimate twist: the entire film was a villain origin story and was in fact happening in the same universe as “Unbreakable.”
7. ‘The Happening’ (2008)
While class was toiling away on development on “The Last Airbender,” he managed to sneak out another project: originally called “The Green Effect” (until that version was rejected by every major studio, except for Disney, who he didn’t even meet with), “The Happening” is a global eco-thriller that he now says was an intentionally goofy B-movie. And looking at the film through that prism, it’s a lot more enjoyable; Mark Wahlberg’s performance can only register as the highest form of camp and the movie’s general nuttiness and excessive bloodletting (it remains the filmmaker’s only R-rated film) make for a perfect midnight movie classic in the making. Nobody can make wind rustling through trees scary, but he does his best.
6. ‘Glass’ (2019)
Almost 20 years in the making, “Glass” served as both a sequel to “Unbreakable” and “Split,” combing characters from both movies into a comic book-inspired y bouillabaisse. Early reactions have been mixed, but I was rather taken with the way that Night defies conventions; instead of an intense, “Avengers”-style beat-‘em-up, “Glass” resembles something like a prison break movie or a psychological drama. In the film the psychopathic, split-personality baddie (James McAvoy), beleaguered hero (Bruce Willis) and genius super-villain (Samuel L. Jackson) all find themselves in the same mental institution, being tended to by an experimental psychologist (Sarah Paulson). Things might not turn out exactly as you’d hoped, but it’s just as subversive and odd as the rest of the trilogy, and that’s alright with me.
5. ‘The Village’ (2004)
Shyamalan's last movie for Disney, an undisputed hit, is also one of his most controversial. In "The Village," a 19th century village makes an uneasy alliance with an unseen force in the neighboring woods, but when a medical emergency causes a blind young girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) to venture into the woods, secrets are exposed far and wide. Now, as a frothy entertainment, "The Village" works pretty well; Roger Deakins' visuals are beyond sumptuous and most of the performers are game (Adrien Brody, as a mentally unstable man, feels beamed in from another planet). And the movie's trapdoor double twist (that the creatures are fabricated to keep the young villagers in line and that it's actually present day) still thrill. But As time as passed, a new reading on the film has emerged (supported by Shyamalan himself) that it was a critique of the Bush administration and its practices of keeping the populace in line via fear. It's a fascinating dimension to a movie that already stubbornly followed its own path.
4. ‘The Visit’ (2015)
After a string of critical and commercial duds, Shyamalan cut himself a large slice of humble pie and self-financed "The Visit," a found-footage chiller that saw the artist reconnecting with what made his voice so powerful in the first place. "The Visit" is ostensibly about a pair of teenagers who go to stay with their grandparents while their mother goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. From there things get progressively stranger, leading to a twist that doesn't feel belabored or too gotcha-y. One of the more arresting-looking found footage movies, you could feel that Shyamalan had something to prove with this one (and according to recent interviews, early cuts of the movie were rejected by every studio) and that he really rallied everything to make sure it turned out well. And it did. It's easily one of the most satisfying, hilarious and scary movies he's ever done and the very best of his low-budget, late-career resurgence.
3. ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
This is the movie where Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan became M. Night. A seemingly inconsequential thriller, which Disney under-hyped and released in the then-wasteland of August, would go on to become a cultural phenomenon. Sure, its twist (Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time!) had people coming back again and again, looking for the clues they might have missed, but it's the movie's expert craftsmanship and commitment to emotional specificity that made it a runaway success (it was the second-biggest movie of 1999) and surprise critical darling. (It's easy to forget that the movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Shyamalan.) Watching the movie again, it's easy to see how the hype could have rolled over Shyamalan; what was less clear was how it would swallow him whole.
2. ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)
"Unbreakable" is widely regarded as Shyamalan's greatest triumph, partially because at the time of its release, it was seen as something of a disappointment, with mixed critical response and merely okay box office. In the nearly 20 years since, though, the movie has taken on a kind of mythic importance, which has only increased with the revelation that "Split" was a sideways sequel and the upcoming release of "Glass." And, yes, "Unbreakable" is really, really great. It's an emotionally involving superhero origin story, told in an incredibly unique and down-to-earth way, with wonderful lead performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis and a mind-blowing conclusion. That said, the movie's incredible visual style, told in a series of long, still takes, leads to the pace becoming downright funereal, the post-twist ending is unsatisfactory, James Newton Howard's trip-hoppy score has aged terribly and I am still convinced Shyamalan has never actually read a comic book in his life.
1. ‘Signs’ (2002)
"Signs" is the plutonic ideal of what an M. Night Shyamalan movie can be. It's got a great, "Twilight Zone"-y premise about a family (led by a terrific Mel Gibson) who deal with increasingly strange and threatening phenomena after a crop circle is discovered on their farm, a script that expertly mixes horror, humor and heart, and suspense set pieces that are wonderfully designed and executed. It is also peerlessly cast, from Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix to Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin and Cherry Jones. Shyamalan has emulated Hitchcock and Spielberg for his entire career but "Signs" could stand alongside those legends' very best films. Even a lackluster creature design and a somewhat pat, on-the-nose final shot can't ruin the fun.