Notes on the Downfall of M. Night Shyamalan
Currently in its third week of release is the movie being pegged as the summer of 2013’s biggest bomb: AFTER EARTH, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The glee with which the internet has greeted this news is consistent with the negativity that has dogged M. Night, apparently a “one-hit wonder” and/or the “worst director ever,” in recent years. It certainly gives me no pleasure to witness his troubles, as M. Night Shyamalan is somebody we should be celebrating: a quirky and individualistic filmmaker who makes defiantly personal films, and does so within the horror genre and with the resources of big studio Hollywood. There’s no denying, however, that Shyamalan’s films have grown progressively shitty.
Its become something of a game to pinpoint the commencement of Shyamalan’s downfall. A popular choice is his 2006 bomb LADY IN THE WATER, which famously led to Shyamalan leaving his cozy perch at Disney when its executives criticized his script (a situation that as I understand it was far more complex than the anti-Shyamalan crowd would have us believe) and inspired Michael Bamberger’s much-derided book THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES, OR HOW M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN RISKED HIS CAREER ON A FAIRY TALE. As for myself, I’d pinpoint the start of the slide far earlier--in late 1999, to be precise, when THE SIXTH SENSE became a phenomenon.
In truth THE SIXTH SENSE was a carefully calculated exercise from the start. Shyamalan apparently set out to write a script that would be so sought-after it free him from his multi-picture deal at Miramax, whose head Harvey Weinstein had clashed with Shyamalan. Remarkably enough the gambit succeeded, with the SIXTH SENSE script purchased by Disney for an astounding $3 million. The resulting film, directed by Shyamalan himself, was a massive hit, constructed as it was around an ingeniously conceived twist ending that inspired countless moviegoers to see the film a second time.
From there, unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns set in with a vengeance. M. Night’s subsequent efforts as writer-director, UNBREAKABLE, SIGNS, THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER and THE HAPPENING, were nearly all quite slapdash from a screenwriting standpoint. It didn’t help matters that a 2004 Sci-Fi Channel mockumentary THE BURIED SECRET OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, alleging that Shyamalan died and was resurrected as a child, was taken seriously by many viewers (to the point that Sci-Fi publicly apologized for its misleading publicity), or that Shyamalan recently lent his name to yet another crappy movie: 2010’s John Erick Dowdle directed DEVIL.
Still, at least one of the above films, UNBREAKABLE, was actually pretty good, while two of the others, THE VILLAGE and LADY IN THE WATER, qualify as interesting failures. All three are marked by passionate filmmaking and thematic concerns far beyond those of most Hollywood fare (with THE VILLAGE offering an intriguing exploration of faith and LADY IN THE WATER a potent depiction of legend and folklore in the modern world), with the weak links in all cases being Shyamalan’s scripts.
About SIGNS I don’t have much to say that’s positive (although it was ironically Shyamalan’s most financially successful post-SIXTH SENSE effort), while I found THE HAPPENING to be an outright abomination, marred by career-worst performances from Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, and a script that really should have been strangled at birth. It seems Shyamalan fell into an all-too common trap among successful filmmakers, believing himself invincible and apparently deciding any idea that popped into his head was SIXTH SENSE worthy. It’s no surprise that on AFTER EARTH, a vanity project by producer/star Will Smith, Shyamalan was but a hired hand, with his name completely left out of the film’s publicity (which some have claimed was a mistake on the part of Sony).
For insight into Shyamalan’s creative process, the aforementioned book THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES, about the inception of Shyamalan’s “most personal” film LADY IN THE WATER, is instructive. The book has been criticized for being overly fawning toward its subject, but I disagree. In fact, I found writer Michael Bamberger’s take on Shyamalan to be admirably measured and complex. It’s true that Bamberger can’t help but admire his subject’s enormous charm, ingenuity and work ethic, yet he’s not shy about illuminating Shyamalan’s highly mercurial and often insecure nature. Delusion is certainly one of his major character flaws, based on all the agonizing Shyamalan goes through over LADY IN THE WATER’S creation and reception, never considering that the overall concept was just never that strong to begin with. The same, of course, can be said for SIGNS, THE VILLAGE and especially THE HAPPENING (I’d love to read a book about the making of that film). Presumably those films went through tortured postproduction woes similar to those detailed in THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES, in which Shyamalan frantically worked and reworked LADY IN THE WATER to please pre-release test audiences, never facing up to the fact that no amount of reconstruction makes much difference in the absence of a solid foundation.
The good--or possibly bad?--news is that M. Night Shyamalan is remaining active in the wake of AFTER EARTH’S failure. Among other things, he’s currently writing a screenplay for a projected micro-budget horror movie that he describes as “really gross and really funny. My mom wouldn’t approve.” After so many big budget failures, perhaps a micro-budgeted project is just what Shyamalan needs to get his groove back…although it will have to be awfully good to clear away the lingering stench of THE HAPPENING.