“I don’t care about the box office. I care about the connection. I want it to be a phenomenon – a cultural phenomenon, where the audience feels some connection to this place, these people, and what was being said here. That’s Jaws, E.T, The Exorcist. All those movies. They just connected.”
With this one small excerpt from a Newsweek interview with M. Night Shyamalan in 2002, anybody who initially couldn’t understand the unconventional appeal of the then-white hot director got a nice dose of his philosophy. Conducted right around the time that Shyamalan’s Mel Gibson-starring sci-fi drama, Signs, was about to release, the interview provides an in-depth look at a filmmaker who many considered to be at the top of his game during this period.
His previous film, Unbreakable, didn’t make a killing at the box office, but it was already well on its way to the cult status it still enjoys today. The film before that, a little supernatural thriller called The Sixth Sense, became arguably THE breakout hit of 1999, establishing the young upstart as one of the leaders of the new wave of cinema heading into a new millennium. Whether or not it’s what he wanted for himself, the power of heightened expectations dictated it.
It’s through those expectations that audiences have framed Night’s peculiar career from humble beginnings to mainstream stardom and well into what is considered one of the most infamous streaks of films for any filmmaker. Shyamalan’s post-Signs filmography has been unceremoniously affected by the mixed-to-negative reception of The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth, culminating in what was almost a full decade of M. Night Shyamalan gradually transforming into one of the most widely mocked filmmakers in Hollywood.
No matter what M. Night did, the connection he fawned about in the Newsweek interview waned with each passing film, sometimes resorting to mockery of his most maligned efforts. The unusual premise and execution of his environmental thriller, The Happening, has continued to live on in infamy through countless numbers of YouTube reviews and retrospectives highlighting the notoriously awkward story.
The mere utterance of “What? Nooo” in your most Mark Wahlberg voice has been afforded a much better fate than the two films before that, The Village and Lady in the Water, which have largely faded into obscurity, twist endings aside. The tainted reputation of The Last Airbender speaks for itself in terms of people’s thoughts on his re-imagining of the beloved show and the father-son duo of Will and Jaden Smith could not deter fans from being turned off by a new sci-fi world that failed to captivate with its post-apocalyptic setting.
No longer was M. Night Shyamalan the celebrated storyteller who took giant risks with unique setups and clever payoffs. The stories with unconventional concepts became boiled down to their concepts, seemingly leaving the stories and characters behind in the dust as a result. His director trademarks, most famously his use of an ending twist, became memes and fodder for other creators to use for their own content.
Despite all of this, Shyamalan is a filmmaker who has never failed to enter the film conversation, for better and for worse. It is likely to hear his name in discussions on the best AND worst filmmakers working today, depending on which era you would prefer to focus on.
From supernatural thrillers to action blockbusters, M. Night is the type of filmmaker who applies to the auteur theory with absolute ease. No matter his waning reputation at the time, Night’s desire for audience connection remained strong with each film, even if the results were not favorable to the Oscar-nominated director. It is the type of filmography that is versatile in style and execution, but similar in trademarks (thrillers with subversive twists) that establish an identity to each film from him.
Aside from The Last Airbender, Shyamalan carved out his niche as an original director over his decades in filmmaking, blinded by the memes that some of his works have turned into now. I personally can’t hear the phrase “what a twist” without thinking of the Robot Chicken episode that poked fun at Night’s penchant for twists in his movies, yet it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of The Sixth Sense’s ending.
Praise aside, Shyamalan’s transition from the most sought-after filmmaker into one of the early internet’s most prominent punching bags is a staggering transformation that would be almost inescapable for any filmmaker. It’s one thing to have some projects receive mixed reactions, but a near-decade long streak for somebody that was once called “the next Spielberg” is downright jarring.
But what’s most interesting about Shyamalan’s career is the 2020s perspective. M. Night Shyamalan has made 5 movies, 2 of them to be released, since the release of After Earth and though not all of them have received the same level of acclaim as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, they have done well enough to earn back a level of respect from the hard-to-please film community, beginning with The Visit and continuing with the Unbreakable sequels, Split and Glass.
A decade of mockery had already done a number on Shyamalan’s reputation, but the mid-to-late 2010s was a time that could be best characterized as a subtle renaissance for the director. The Visit, released in 2015 and focused on two siblings documenting the strange events occurring during a visit to their grandparents’ house, grossed close to $100 million on a budget of $5 million and effectively gave Shyamalan his first critical success (a soft one, but a success nonetheless) since Signs.
Released through Blumhouse, Shyamalan was finally in the news for positive reactions to his film instead of the inverse. The Visit was no critical darling, but the level of distaste that had once permeated from every corner of the internet for some of his past efforts was comparatively muted. For every joke made at the film’s and Shyamalan’s expense, there were hundreds more that seemed to distance themselves from treading this path again.
The same can be applied to his next film, Split, the story of a serial killer with Dissociative Identity Disorder kidnapping three teenagers for a grim plan and the most successful film of Shyamalan’s post-After Earth career. A man going through several different personalities, one of them being a 9-year-old boy with a lisp, looked as though it was being set up as another meme-heavy Shyamalan production, only for it to top The Visit’s success at $278 million with a budget of $9 million.
The combination of James McAvoy’s widely acclaimed performance, the genuine mystery of the narrative, and its connection to Unbreakable catapulted the film’s success into pre-Signs Shyamalan, despite the man himself still being something of a stigma to audience members who remember the days of The Happening and The Last Airbender.
Shyamalan’s name still provokes mixed reactions from skeptical audience members or people who simply still enjoy mocking the director for their own respective reasons. Speaking from my own experience, I can still remember the chuckles and sounds of noticeable irritation when Shyamalan’s name popped up in the trailers for his next film and conclusion to the Unbreakable trilogy, Glass. Split’s success helped rejuvenate Shyamalan’s career, but it has not completely wiped away the baggage that the internet saddled him with after his decade-long losing streak.
But even Glass’s so-so reviews and audience reaction could not compare to the vitriol and barrage of memes that once defined an M. Night release. Released once again by Blumhouse, Glass’s place in the Shyamalaniverse has been elevated purely through the unique nature of its concept and its connection to two of his most acclaimed works. Middling reviews and baggage did little to stomp out the idea that M. Night Shyamalan was lost to the film world, if his previous two films hadn’t already accomplished that.
But was Shyamalan ever “gone” to begin with?
The idea of the infamous director reemerging as a quality filmmaker is something that is personally lost on me and heading into the 2020s, I’m positive to not be the only one. There is no doubting that Shyamalan has been relatively spared the seething jokes and memes compared to other films as of late. But if we just boil down this development to the conclusion that he’s “just making good movies again”, we ignore the fascinating trajectory of a director once slotted to become the next blockbuster master of cinema.
This was the expectation saddled onto Shyamalan early on in his career when the success of The Sixth Sense catapulted him into the mainstream. Having three critical and/or financial hits in a row naturally excited audiences to the point of painting him as one of the new standards of mainstream cinema. As is expected, when this standard is not met by the one who unwittingly set it for himself, the reaction itself is heightened as a result.
Making a well-received film is no easy task even with the right crew on hand and for all of the popular and critically adored films we see and hear about, there is a sea of poorly made projects drifting in film limbo. Seeing the early hot streak of Shyamalan seemingly wiped away the doubt of the man ever being capable of making something that couldn’t instantly connect with its audience, which itself is something to tread lightly on.
Shyamalan faced a phenomenon not unlike those of movie stars; give audiences what they expect of you and you will be rewarded in return. But what exactly did audiences want from Shyamalan? Of course, we’d all like movies that we enjoy and can connect with, but was that enough? When a filmmaker is dubbed the next Spielberg, how beneficial are those expectations when he ventures into unexpected territory? Why is M. Night Shyamalan “back” if he technically never left the scene?
Above all else, Shyamalan is a director known for the passion poured into his filmmaking. Whether his efforts are applauded or mocked, he is not especially known for half-assed directing jobs. But the power of heightened expectations can cloud even the best filmmakers’ mindsets on what they can or cannot make for audiences. “The next Spielberg” has a lot to live up to and for a director hellbent on giving mainstream audiences some semblance of originality in his films to chew on, those expectations can be more narrowing than we realize.
In an interview with Adam Sternbergh of Vulture in anticipation of Glass, Shyamalan reflects on the initial honeymoon period and how he perceived the changing aura of his later films. He uses an analogy, asking to imagine that “…you write a song, and suddenly everyone loves you! It seems like you have control over the fact that everyone loves you. But you don’t.” A simple, but telling analogy.
As his films grew bigger and expectations gradually became gargantuan compared to The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s own connection to the audience seemed to fade, even when he made something out of genuine passion. The connection that 2002 Shyamalan raved about in the Newsweek interview was lost according to 2019 Shyamalan. He further stated that he started to make movies that could be made instead of projects he truthfully wanted to make.
I think a large part of why we think of Shyamalan returning to form with The Visit has to do less with him making thriller and horror movies again (I mean, that didn’t stop us from shitting on The Happening and Lady in the Water, right?) and more with him reevaluating our own perception of what to expect from an M. Night Shyamalan film. He has talked at length about essentially accepting the idea of making genre movies again after his blockbuster experiments, but I believe there to be more elements at play.
The expectations of an M. Night feature have shifted wildly over the course of his career, from high hopes to presuming the absolute worst thing imaginable. But we appear to now be at a place where we can add nuance to a career that is far more complicated than we could ever predict. The power of reflection can do so much to break the illusion of our perceived memories and with Shyamalan, it allows us to see the trailer for an upcoming Shyamalan feature and base our opinions on our own personal history with his filmography.
Night has always been considered something of a pop filmmaker, creating stories meant for mass appeal, but he has usually done so on his own terms. Shyamalan’s little quirks that snuck by in his films have endeared more than irritated and when expectations grew, the quirks stayed out of some conclusion that we were going to accept them no matter what kind of movie he made. Shyamalan’s own expectations thrown to us got the better of him for a long time. A double-edged sword.
It’s as the man says; it’s hard to control people’s perception of you even when you’re on top of the world. He spent a better part of the late 2000s trying to control the narrative that we helped jumpstart by our idea of what a Shyamalan film should provide for us and The Visit is anything but that. Hell, everything afterwards has subverted the idea of what to expect from his stories. In a way, this is potentially the best path moving forward.
It may feel backhanded to suggest that lowering our expectations have helped us accept M. Night Shyamalan again, but that isn’t even what’s happening here. Instead, we are in a position where we can expect just about anything from him and for a filmmaker who has long stuck with crafting original stories, it has come with unforeseen benefits.
No longer is the conversation surrounding a new M. Night feature dominated by extreme expectations on either side. When the trailer for Old released during the Super Bowl, social media reactions ranged from positive curiosity to complete disregard and everything between. But the film itself is looking to be…a film from M. Night Shyamalan. He is satisfying our needs for a new horror-thriller, but he looks to be doing it on his own terms again and as a result, the auteur truly has returned to form.
I am aware of the risk of writing this piece mere months before Old releases, but whether the film succeeds or bombs is not especially relevant here. M. Night has returned with an energy that hasn’t been seen in over a decade and expectations have shifted far from the types that hindered him early on.
It is a whole process of both parties gradually coming to terms with what to expect from each other. We should not be able to latch unreasonably high expectations on an unsuspecting filmmaker, just like how filmmakers shouldn’t expect audiences to eat up everything they offer without a second thought.
Shyamalan’s rebirth in the previous decade came up from both him and us accepting the fact that not only is he not the next Spielberg, it’s good that he’s not the next Spielberg. For all of the memes that that now-notorious magazine cover has birthed, it is ultimately an example of a narrative that should never have been started in the first place. Perhaps if that comparison was never made, his late 2000s films may have been received differently.
I don’t think that’s the case, but regardless of the what-ifs, Shyamalan’s career now fully exists in its own unique framing, for better and for worse. It’s why this period of his career is being considered a renaissance even when there are still large and vocal sections of detractors. Shyamalan employs the power of connection through his vision and if the rest of his films moving forward receive negative backlash, it’ll be through his terms and not through those of an ill-fated magazine cover.