Last week's "Shelf Life" looked back at Carrie, the iconic Brian De Palma movie that introduced the world to movies about terrifying teenage girls, the latest iteration of which is Diablo Cody's follow-up to Juno, Jennifer's Body. In anticipation of the upcoming movie Surrogates, which opens this Friday, we decided to revisit Bruce Willis' last great hit, The Sixth Sense, admittedly less because it has anything other than its star in common with Jonathan Mostow's technothriller than the fact that there are few movies in the last decade as acclaimed and commercially successful as M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 breakthrough. As such, we figured it was time to take a look at the movie that made "I see dead people" a pop culture catchphrase and examine whether it should truly live on as the classic it was originally considered.
The Facts: M. Night Shyamalan and his diminutive star, Haley Joel Osment, became overnight icons with this 1999 film about a doctor named Malcolm (played by Willis) desperately trying to reach a little boy named Cole who claims to see ghosts. Though it allegedly cost only $55 million to make, the film became the sleeper hit of that summer, earning some $670 million worldwide as well as six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor, Director, Editor, and Original Screenplay. Meanwhile, the film drew almost unanimous praise from the critical community, and currently enjoys a 85 percent Tomatometer rating. Not to mention its greatest legacy – namely, making twist endings the hallmark (and eventually, Achilles' heel) of its director, most of whose subsequent movies featured some sort of third-act surprise.
What Still Works: Amazingly, almost everything. Truth be told, I only saw The Sixth Sense once in theaters, and never went back to see whether its retroactive logic actually applied to everything that comes before the film's secret is revealed. But Shyamalan expertly constructs almost every sequence in the film both to prey upon and subvert our expectations of what we think is happening, for example beginning or ending scenes that lead the audience to believe characters have had previous conversations, or left or arrived at places they couldn't actually go. Further, the writer-director sneaks little cues, clues and details into the behavior and mannerisms of his characters to provide a foundation both for our initial preconceptions about the story, and its cathartic, revelatory finale, using color motifs and compositional repetition to alert us that something isn't quite right, even before it's explained why.
Dramatically, meanwhile, the film works spectacularly well as a character piece, thanks to the uniformly great performances of Willis, Osment, and Toni Colette, who plays Cole's despondent mother. In particular, the scene where Cole confesses his powers to his mother is absolutely devastating, simply because of the work of Colette and Osment delivering what might in lesser hands be a weepy bit of melodramatic exposition. But Willis makes his character's determination and self-torture for failing another patient palpable in his efforts to help Cole, and of course Osment (in a star-making turn) cements Cole's ongoing torment as a kid who suffers from gruesome visions no matter how hopeful or optimistic he tries to be.
What Doesn't Work: The only problem I had with The Sixth Sense was during the opening scene, where Olivia Williams' character is forced to recite the entire text of the plaque Malcolm receives for superlative child care; while the rest of the film is consistently subtle or understated, this seemed like a particularly self-conscious or telling bit of dialogue, and is in its way the most obvious part of the entire story, whether it's important information or not. Otherwise, there is almost nothing that stands out as a problem or shortcoming, although I'm not sure it was entirely necessary for Mischa Barton's character to be introduced with her vomiting some kind of oatmeal-like substance all over the place.
What's The Verdict: Of the four films that we've covered in this series, The Sixth Sense holds up the best by far. What's really even more amazing is that even if you know the film's secret, its entertainment value and more importantly, its dramatic impact is just as strong on subsequent viewings – and in fact may enhance it. Of course, Shyamalan detractors may see its success as an unfortunate lesson for the filmmaker that he can or should do the "same" thing with every subsequent film – which for the record I don't think he does. But as is often the case when something catches the public off guard, and moreover, captures their imaginations, there's a thin line between recreating a certain kind of movie magic, and simply copying it. Thankfully, when The Sixth Sense created that sensation, it didn't substitute emotional depth for more immediate gratification –which is why the film continues to hold up beautifully today.