How do you go from “the next Spielberg” to a critical joke in the span of a single decade? How, exactly, do you squander all the cinematic goodwill you’ve built up over the course of some stellar motion pictures to produce what many consider to be back-to-back-to-back bombs? It’s an intriguing set of questions, one that the subject would probably scoff at as nothing more than the irrational ‘hating’ of a fetishized fanboy nation. But the fact remains that M Night Shyamalan is considered the owner of one aesthetic flop after another. While The Last Airbender made enough money to see Paramount past its obvious critical drubbing (it was based on a wildly popular animated kids show, after all), what’s clear is that said film, and the nearly three films in between his latest, After Earth, showcases a director no longer in control of his muse.
In fact, many are starting to call him a one trick pony, and a couple of caveats aside, it looks like an accurate label. Sure, Unbreakable still has its devoted following, and Signs is an intriguing (if narratively manipulative and front-loaded) look at an alien invasion from a single farm’s perspective, the rest of Shyamalan’s creative cannon is crappy, at best. The Village took an already hackneyed idea and let it destroy an otherwise effective fairy tale and the Lady in the Water wasn’t going to work no matter which studio allowed its maker complete carte blanche. And then there was the laughably bad horror film The Happening, a movie that Shyamalan actually referred to as the “scariest” thing he had ever done. If he was referencing how undeniably awful it was/is, he had a point.
So again, how exactly did this happen? How does a multiple Oscar nominee and one-time commercial given fall so far so fast? There are many theories out there - ego, studio arrogance and/or interference, the lack of same, an overreliance on contrivance (i.e. - the “twist” ending), the director’s desire to give himself a major acting role in almost every effort. Some have even suggested that there is really nothing wrong with his films and that Shyamalan’s status as a filmmaker “of color” is the reason behind the backlash (read: racism). Even when money is mentioned, it is clear that despite their poor reception, the man’s movies make money, with Unbreakable cracking $250 million while Signs made close to $700 million worldwide. The Last Airbender took in $319 million while The Happening even managed to rake in $163 million. Only Lady in the Water was a quantitative disappointment, bringing in a mere $73 million.
Of course, it could just be the films themselves. No one is suggesting that After Earth will be bereft of visual flare (all 3D and CG aside). There are also early speculations that point out the excellent special effects and action scenes. No, where Shyamalan seems to be faltering is in the script department, a place that many in his minion used to celebrate. Clearly, the screenplays for The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening are less than polished, each one coughing up laughable lines and illogical leaps in plot mechanics. But even further back, Shyamalan was seemingly skirting by. Signs often appears crafted out of a series of character quality flashcards, each one envisioned as a piece in a pat, predestined puzzle while Unbreakable ends the most mythic origin story ever to then leave its super hero and super villain hanging.
Viewed some 14 years later, even The Sixth Sense seems less like a phenomenon and more like a very well made movie that struck at the proper point in the cultural dialogue. There is little replay value story-wise, while stars Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment shine in a way that almost makes up for the lack of repeatability. In fact, many of Shyamalan’s efforts tolerate another look simply because of the visuals employed. Take The Happening. The opening string of “suicides”, including a memorable moment at a construction site, really does deliver. Similarly, Signs has the sequence where a South American birthday party video is witness to one of the advancing extraterrestrials. From iconic imagery (Willis standing in the rain before reluctantly accepting his role as a crimefighter) to flights of imagination and fancy (some of Lady in the Water is gorgeous to look at), Shyamalan has a wonderful cinematic eye.
But movies are more than epic optical scope (right, Tim Burton?). When wrapped in the ridiculous trappings of his sloppy storytelling, even the most memorable moment fails him. Disney stood up to Shyamalan when he brought the Lady project to what was then his production home, Touchstone. After taking one look at the half-baked bedtime story loaded with sprites, demon dogs, and a particularly crabby film critic, they said “No”. Even with the boatload of cash the director had made for them, they saw little possibility in the project. Thus began a battle of wills which saw Warner Brothers scoop up the stranded title. In one of the rare cases where the suits knew better than the supposed artist, Lady laid a massive egg, firing the first serious salvo into Shyamalan’s seemingly impenetrably bankability.
Now, three films into his continuing disgrace, it’s hard to support much of what he’s accomplished. Indeed, the abject badness of something like The Happening makes one queasy toward accepting anything he’s ever done. That’s the surreal part of this situation. Imagine Stephen Spielberg (to reference back to the beginning) helming Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jaws, and then delivering Porky’s, Troll, and The Last Action Hero. No one is expecting perfection, not even from someone who supposedly demands it of himself. But to go from great to god-awful posses a particularly troubling quandary - is Shyamalan a bad director who got lucky at first, or a great filmmaker deluded by his own hype?
In either case, this continued collapse is stunning. There is no doubt that, even if After Earth tanks, he will get yet another shot at screwing up something else (he has already hinted about working with Willis again). Studios are certain that they are the ones that can hem in his hubris and get the man back in blockbuster mode again - and who knows. Maybe Earth will be the return to form many feel he’s due. In either case, there are few filmmakers who one can point to as being both the best and worst at what they claim to be capable of. While it’s not a particularly proud badge of honor, M Night Shyamalan must wear it, at least for now. It definitely makes him an anomaly among his fellow mavericks. In this case, however, being different doesn’t mean being better. Just beleaguered…and belittled…and broken.
// Notes from the Road
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