The overwhelming commercial and critical success of The Sixth Sense (1999), a supernatural thriller and Shyamalan's third film, gave him the freedom to write and direct without studio interference. Although I wasn't a big fan of The Sixth Sense and its derivative, Twilight Zone-inspired twist ending (i.e., the central character has been a ghost all along), I could (and did) appreciate why it resonated with so many moviegoers. It wasn't the twist per se or even Malcolm Crowe's (Bruce Willis) personal journey toward self-realization and self-awareness, but instead, the possibility, no matter how unlikely or improbably, of contact with those who've passed on, of closure to key relationships in our lives.
That led to what I consider Shyamalan's best film, Unbreakable, a slow-burn, spandex-free superhero origin story that reunited Shyamalan with Bruce Willis as the "unbreakable" hero of the title. Shyamalan gave audiences another twist ending, but this time, it was tied to a character's central motivation, not the underlying premise as in The Sixth Sense, making it both more believable and less gimmicky. Moviegoers didn't respond as favorably; Unbreakable made less than $100 million domestically, two-thirds less than The Sixth Sense. Critics responded less favorably as well: Unbreakable received a score of 68% versus 85% for The Sixth Sense only a year earlier.
Signs (2002), a science-fiction/horror/thriller, was another commercial success and, while still scoring less than The Sixth Sense with critics, retains a respectable 74% score. For me (and others), Signs was the first serious indication of Shyamalan's deteriorating skills as a storyteller. Living up to audience expectations, Shyamalan included another twist ending, this time involving water-averse aliens from outer space who, for reasons left unexplained, attempt to invade a planet (ours) covered with water. Shyamalan added another twist, a message from the past (i.e., "Swing away!"), that was as ridiculous as it was unnecessary. Moviegoers, however, seemed to respond to Shyamalan's simple, religious message (i.e., "everything happens for a reason").
Shyamalan returned in 2004 with The Village, a period horror-thriller with a 9-11/war-on-terrorism theme that, at least based on the initial premise, had the potential to be one of Shyamalan's strongest films, but hemmed in by audience and, presumably studio expectations (not to mention Adrien Brody, only two years removed from his Oscar-winning turn in The Pianist, as the literal "village idiot"), Shyamalan ruined the film and made a mockery of the themes by employing a disappointingly predictable, nonsensical twist ending. Critics responded with the lowest score (to date), only 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, and, despite a strong opening weekend, bad word-of-mouth led to a precipitous decline in subsequent weeks, barely crossing the $100 million mark (roughly half of Signs' box office take).
Shyamalan's hubris, his inability to accept criticism and/or his ability to be objective with his own work, is clearly evident in Lady in the Water, a dark fantasy and Shyamalan's first for Warner Bros. after Disney executives rejected the screenplay, continued his descent into critical disfavor (a score of 24% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audience disinterest (only $42 million domestically). Shyamalan included a film critic as a secondary character. Unsurprisingly, the film critic died a brutal, ugly death. Even worse, Shyamalan wrote a role for himself as an author responsible for writing a revolutionary self-help book, the secular equivalent of the Gospels (as in the Christian New Testament). Shyamalan received four Razzie nominations, including Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. He won for Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor.
Switching distributors from Warner Bros. to 20th-Century Fox for his next film, The Happening, an eco-thriller and Shyamalan's first R-rated film, didn't change Shyamalan's commercial fortunes or favor with critics. Another box-office dud, it only earned $64 million domestically, critics once again responded negatively (18% favorable reviews on Rotten Tomatoes). To be fair, The Happening opened strongly with a seemingly inexplicable epidemic of mass suicide, but Shyamalan's explanation (the world's plants turning against a toxic, destructive humanity), was, despite a few effective scenes and an obvious Hitchcock influence (e.g., The Birds), as silly as it was ham-handed in its messaging. There's nothing wrong with a pro-environmental message, of course, but it can't (and shouldn't) be delivered through incoherent storytelling and feeble performances.
That only leaves The Last Airbender to discuss, but you can read Cinematical's review (or mine) to get a fuller idea of how Shyamalan failed to translate the animated series to the big screen. After one disappointment after another, only the most optimistic of critics or moviegoers could have expected quality storytelling, but what Shyamalan delivered wasn't mediocrity, it was ineptitude on a staggering scale. Whatever gifts Shyamalan showed as a director, even when Shyamalan-the-writer didn't deliver in the past, are nowhere in evidence. Whether it was the challenge of adapting a season-long story arc into a two-hour film, working on an effects-heavy film (something he hadn't done before), badly cast actors (which he chose), all of the above or none of the above, Shyamalan failed utterly. Moviegoers, alas, who decide not to heed this warning (and others), will pay the penultimate price: time, a precious, non-renewable resource, wasted completely.
Additional entries in The Last Airbender universe look unlikely (as always, the box-office take dictates whether a sequel will be made), but even if one or two sequels are made, Shyamalan shouldn't direct them. He shouldn't be involved at all. After The Last Airbender, it's unclear, however, whether Shyamalan should direct again. After more than a decade and nine films, he's lost the ability to examine his screenplays from a critical perspective, to take and accept constructive criticism. He takes himself too seriously and he wants critics and moviegoers to take him just as seriously. M. Night Shyamalan obviously sees himself as an artist first and a commercial filmmaker second. He's neither, at least not any more.
A decade ago, favorable comparisons were made between Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg. After The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, that comparison couldn't have been more wrong. It's simply, woefully wrong. A lesson Spielberg learned early on, to direct and produce, but not to write, is one Shyamalan refused to learn. As an executive producer, Spielberg shapes the screenplays he directs, but ultimately, he doesn't write, nor does he receive, writing credits. Directing, but not writing, hasn't affected Spielberg's reputation as an auteur. In fact, the opposite is true.
Finally, some unsolicited advice for Mr. Shyamalan: Stop writing. Direct, but let others write. Don't produce. Don't adapt. Don't polish someone else's screenplay. And last thing: drop the over-the-title credit. Besides being another sign of hubris, it's no longer deserved.
So the question of the hour and the day and/or night: What happened to Shyamalan? Was it, is it, just hubris? Or has Shyamalan lost it (as in skills and talent) as a filmmaker? Is there any hope left for him?