An M. Night Shyamalan Retrospective: The Good

by Simon Ong

M. Night Shyamalan’s career is one of the most interesting and ever-changing in Hollywood. He was once considered an emerging, talented auteur in American cinema, only to quickly become an industry laughing-stock. Now, it appears that Shyamalan is on something of a rebound, so in the lead-up to the release of his new film Glass later this month, I’m looking at Shyamalan’s filmography in a three-part retrospective. In this first part, the focus is on Shyamalan’s first three mainstream films, or as I’ve dubbed them, “The Good”: The Sixth SenseUnbreakable, and Signs.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Although Shyamalan has earlier directorial efforts (Praying with Anger, a semi-autobiographical film starring Shyamalan, made while he was still in school; and Wide Awake, a coming-of-age comedy starring Denis Leary and Rosie O’Donnell), The Sixth Sense should be considered the first proper Shyamalan film. It was the first of his films to get a wide release in America, and it set the bar in terms of tone and style for all his films to come. It is the first in what Shyamalan would likely consider part of his canonical filmography. Even this early on, Shyamalan thought of himself as an auteur. The prominently displayed “Written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan” to start the film is evidence enough of this mindset, without mentioning the increasingly prominent cameos in his own movies. And, hey, it’s hard to blame Shyamalan for casting himself in this light when nothing that he’s done since (or will do in the future) can change what this movie unquestionably is: a masterpiece.

The Sixth Sense may be the only movie I’ve watched two times in a row, without any break in between. The film is good on first viewing, but it’s that immediate second viewing that clinches it’s place as one of the greatest films of the 1990s. The ending profoundly changes your understanding of the story, so it really is like watching an entirely different film on your second go-around. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, and it’s remarkable that Shyamalan pulls it off. Shyamalan’s attention to detail, evident in both the script and the stylistic elements (i.e. the use of the color red), is the reason the film works so well. On top of that, there are some great performances on display. Toni Collette, especially, is a gem. The scene in the car she shares with little Haley Joel Osment toward the end of the film shows off Collette’s emotional range (and speaks to the oft-overlooked talent of Osment).

The Sixth Sense was a smash hit: it grossed nearly $700 million in worldwide box office and became the second-highest-grossing film of 1999 behind Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. At the domestic box office, it became the twelfth-highest-grossing film of all time. For an original film from an unknown director to do so well was extremely rare and is almost unheard-of today. Critically, the film was equally well-received, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Shyamalan received nominations for both Director and Original Screenplay, and Colette and Osment each received a nod in the Supporting Actress/Actor categories. If Shyamalan thought of himself as an auteur in the making, he certainly seemed justified. But Hollywood had a different conception of Shyamalan, and with The Sixth Sense the seeds of that misinterpretation had been sown. It was just a matter of time before they sprouted.

Unbreakable (2000)

Catapulted by the undeniable momentum of The Sixth Sense and its financial and critical success, Shyamalan quickly got back to work. He began filming Unbreakable in May of the following year for a planned November release. Shyamalan was inspired by comic books and superheroes while creating Unbreakable, which tells the story of a security officer (Bruce Willis) who, encouraged by the theorizing of a mysterious man with unnaturally fragile bones (Samuel L. Jackson), begins to suspect he has superhuman abilities after surviving a deadly train crash. Overall, Unbreakable holds up quite well. It doesn’t clear the bar set by The Sixth Sense, but how could it? For a sophomore film, Unbreakable works rather nicely, and I’m excited to reunite with these characters when they return in Shyamalan’s Glass, arriving in theaters this month.

However, Unbreakable is somewhat guilty in attempting to subvert the superhero movie genre before it was fully-formed. It’s not the only film to try this: The Incredibles (2004), Kick-Ass (2010), and Super (2010) were all deconstructions of a genre that was still young and had scarcely been constructed.  Some of these films did this better than others, but Unbreakable, the earliest of them, was released during an entirely different era of superhero cinema.  The world had only recently seen Singer’s X-Men, and it had yet to experience Raimi’s Spider-Man. The only mainstream superhero movies familiar to most moviegoers were the Christopher Reeve Superman films and the Burton/Schumacher Batman films.

As a result, Unbreakable faced an uphill battle in both its production and its reception. As Shyamalan said in a recent interview: “I was in a conference call with the studio, and they were saying we can’t mention the word ‘comic books’ or ‘superheroes’ because it’s too fringe.” That clearly describes a different world than exists today. Due to changing audience and studio attitudes toward the genre, Unbreakable has aged well, but at the time of its original release, the film received a score of just 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. Modern reappraisals have been much kinder, and it now serves as the first entry in the soon-to-be “Eastrail 177 Trilogy,” comprising Unbreakable, Split, and Glass.

The film’s script was significantly reworked between its first drafts and its final form, with early versions including James McAvoy’s character(s) from Split. But the differences go far beyond the mere cutting of one character. It’s unclear whether these changes were the result of studio meddling or Shyamalan deciding to shift the focus of his film. What is clear is that the film’s eventual ending was not originally intended to be a twist. Shyamalan had initially wanted Unbreakable to follow a more traditional three-act superhero structure, opening with the hero’s origin, continuing to the hero discovering his powers and facing-off against lesser enemies, and ending, at last, with the hero facing his arch-nemesis. Shyamalan instead decided to focus exclusively on the birth of his hero, with the arch-nemesis reveal serving as the final surprise revelation rather than simply an Act One plot point. The result was another Shyamalan film that had a big twist at the end. After just two films, the auteur had become “the twist guy,” a title he never wanted and one that would ultimately contribute to his downfall.

Signs (2002)

For his third film, Shyamalan chose not to cast Bruce Willis again as his leading man, and instead went with… Mel Gibson! Negative points for that. Hollywood should have known better, even in 2002. As for the story, Signs centers on a former priest struggling with his faith after the death of his wife, who must protect his family when extraterrestrials begin to appear around their home in rural Pennsylvania. 

Having just subverted superhero and comic book stories, Shyamalan had a cool opportunity with this film to subvert a far more established genre in cinema: aliens and extraterrestrial movies. Instead, we’re left with a meditation on… miracles? Believing in signs from some higher power? I don’t know, I have mixed feelings about this one. Even more than The Village (we’ll talk about that next time), this is the most divisive of Shyamalan’s films for me. On the one hand, Signs isn’t a bad film. In fact, there are moments when it’s quite good. The slow build-up of alien interactions with Earth, while not necessarily unique, is done well and provides a nice sense of dread.

Unlike The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, however, there’s a lot more that doesn’t work. The CGI has aged poorly, of course, but the film was released in 2002 so I don’t think that should be held against it. Something that should be held against it is the bland design of the extraterrestrials. They’re somewhat cool and creepy when first revealed via a home video aired on a newscast, but the boogeymen are ultimately disappointing once we see them in the flesh (so to speak). There are also some script elements that don’t quite come together; too many moments where Shyamalan thinks he’s being cheeky and instead come across as either contrived or, well, weird.

Despite all those issues, I’m still convinced that Signs is pretty good movie. It’s just, perhaps, a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie. Even after just two films, Shyamalan had become “the twist guy,” and if you’re hoping for a twist ending to Signs, you’re likely to be disappointed. Unlike the endings of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, where there’s information revealed that demonstrably changes your understanding the film, the ending of Signs only changes the worldview of a single character. He didn’t believe in miracles, and now he does. That works, and makes for an interesting film, but it shouldn’t be treated like Shyamalan’s previous films’ endings.

I suspect that Shyamalan was afraid of this problem. He’s shown awareness of the expectations that come with his name. When speaking about the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi,to which he was originally attached, Shyamalan said: “I was hesitant because the book has kind of a twist ending. And I was concerned that as soon as you put my name on it, everybody would have a different experience. Whereas if someone else did it, it would be much more satisfying, I think. Expectations, you’ve got to be aware of them.” 

Signs is the first example of expectations standing in Shyamalan’s way. The cracks had begun to show. And as I’ll explore in part two, things were about to get worse. Much worse.