Ranking the Movies of M. Night Shyamalan

Ranking the Movies of M. Night Shyamalan

Does everyone remember in the late 90s/early 2000s when M. Night Shyamalan was hailed as “the next Spielberg?”  Well, with his debut hat-trick of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, that was a fair proclamation.  However, his filmography since then has been peppered with missteps and outright failures.  It seemed like that comparison was far too premature. The kid genius who shocked the world with The Sixth Sense had slipped into a somewhat of an indulgent hack.  Film after film, he seemed to keep getting cornier and sillier.  Lately though, we seem to be entering a new Renaissance of M. Night Shyamalan films.  There was a hint of “old” Shyamalan in his 2015 film, The Visit.  However, it was with 2017’s Split that he called out to the world that he was back.  That film, built upon an astonishing performance of James McAvoy to become a solid thriller.  Not only that, but Shyamalan is now out to create his own expanded universe.  Spoiler Alert: Split wound up being a hidden sequel to Unbreakable.  Now, in January, we will all be treated to the unification of The Beast, Mr. Glass, and David Dunn.  To prepare for that event, let us look back on all of M. Night Shyamalan’s films since 1999’s The Sixth Sense.  Maybe some of his failures weren’t as bad as we remembered.

#10:  The Happening (2008)

Who knows what went so disastrously wrong with this so-called horror film?  Mark Wahlberg is laughably terrible in the film and the twist is so obnoxiously absurd that it ruined the entire experience.  M. Night Shyamalan is a great technical director. You can never say he doesn’t make great LOOKING films. The Happening is no exception.  The movie shows people committing random suicide throughout a long, slow burn.  Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are out to discover why. What could have been an acceptable explanation?  Mass hypnosis? Cultish brainwashing? Alien brain beams? Sure, any of those would have been better than plants releasing a defense pheromone.  Killer Trees? Are you serious?

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#9:  After Earth (2013)

The premise of the film isn’t the worst idea in the world, but After Earth turned out to be a terrible, nepotistic bait-and-switch.  The characters played by Will Smith and his son Jaden crash land on Earth 1000 years after humanity had to flee.  So, now the planet is chock-full of scary stuff, and Jaden (their character names are irrelevant) has to go find help.  Then we are treated to tedious running, pointless action sequences, and almost an entire film of Will Smith and his son talking to each other over the radio.  Most of this nonsense is about “fear”, and without fear, you can become invisible to the terrestrial threat.  But wait, how could these monsters “evolve to kill humans” if humans have been gone for 1000 years?  After Earth doesn’t want you to think about those things.  It just wants you to shut up and watch Will Smith.  Usually that is enough, but not with M. Night Shyamalan choking as much as he does here.

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#8:  The Last Airbender (2010)

The Last Airbender is an absolute mess.  Critics considered it to be an agonizing experience.  Fans of the animated Nickelodeon show consider it a crime and a disrespectful adaptation to the glorious source material.  The special effects are laughable. The acting is some of the worst in any Shyamalan film. The story is completely nonsensical and the whitewashing of the cast is indefensible.  However, M. Night Shyamalan made The Last Airbender for kids.  Also, somehow it made $320 Million at the worldwide box office; doubling its budget.  Shyamalan has a knack for that. He may have made some terrible movies, but they always make money.

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#7:  The Village (2004)

2004’s The Village is the first film where M. Night Shyamalan began to show his fatigue.  Throughout the entire runtime of The Village, it is apparent that the entire film is all about the imminent twist.  The story about an old-timey village that fears monsters from the bordering woods is fine.  But with that twist splinter stuck in your brain, it is nearly impossible to be sacred by the ridiculous hedgehog monsters when they appear.  You are just waiting for the explanation. When it comes, it is just not worth it. Again, the film is crafted well and populated with wonderful actors.  The film is a great introduction to the always enjoyable Bryce Dallas Howard. But it is all for naught. Plus, the twist destroys any rewatchability the film may have had.  Unlike The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where the twist enhances it.

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#6:  The Visit (2015)

It is here on this list, with The Visit, that M. Night Shyamalan’s films segue from bad to good.  The Visit isn’t great, and it is Shyamalan’s foray into the found-footage genre.  However, there are certainly some frightening moments that are jarring enough to make the film enjoyable.  Two siblings Becca and Tyler are off to visit their estranged grandparents for the weekend. Becca is documenting the visit as a school project, hence the found-footage angle.  However, the grandparents are constantly acting anywhere from odd to insane, and the children start to fear for their lives. Kathryn Hahn, as their mother, has a line in the film’s climax that will send shivers down your spine.  It has that Shyamalan flair we hadn’t seen in years.

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#5:  Unbreakable (2000)

This may be a bit unpopular, but this is about where Unbreakable belongs on this list.  In M. Night Shyamalan’s sophomore outing, we set out to make a dark, dreary, modernized superhero movie.  However, although it is clever, it is a bit of a slog. Don’t misunderstand, Unbreakable is probably his best looking film, and Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis are great arch enemies.  The problem is that almost the entire film is David Dunn and his son trying to discover his abilities, and it becomes tedious after a while.  The film is essentially a superhero/supervillain origin story.  Imagine if we got a Spider-Man movie where Peter Parker gets bit by the spider and spends 2 hours in Aunt May’s house discovering his powers.  Pretty boring, right? Still, this film is head and shoulders above many of Shyamalan’s other films. Also, it is the genesis of an M. Night Shyamalan universe, so there is that.

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#4:  Signs (2002)

Probably the most Hitchcockian film in the list, Signs is a film that definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat.  Mel Gibson plays a widower, ex-pastor whose farm has become the victim of the crop circle phenomenon.  Nobody quite understands why these patterns are showing up all over the world until the aliens start showing up.  M. Night Shyamalan was smart to treat this alien invasion story like Jaws.  We only get fuzzy news footage, sounds, and flashes of figures to feed our fear and paranoia, and it works wonderfully.  Joaquin Phoenix is especially effective portraying that kind of paralyzing fright. We get a good look at the aliens in the end as payoff.  The audience also gets explanations for all the seemingly innocuous details that came before. Sure, it is all laughably ridiculous that aliens to whom water is deadly would invade a planet made of the stuff, but the ride up to that point is phenomenal.

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#3:  Lady in the Water (2006)

This is the other contentious film placement, but Lady in the Water is a very good film.  Comparing it to Edward Scissorhands is ridiculous, but it is a modernized, dark, adult fairy tale as well.  Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland, a superintendent of an apartment complex who saves a young woman from the community pool.  However, she isn’t a girl. She is a mythical water sprite named Story (ugh) who is trapped in our world and dark forces are keeping her from returning.  Cleveland enlists the ragtag group of tenants to help keep her safe. The inclusion of a movie critic and M. Night Shyamalan himself is the height of pretension though the dynamics between the group are a lot of fun.  Sure, again, the premise is ridiculously absurd, but the atmosphere is amazing and Giamatti brings a lot of vulnerability to his role.  Also, the Christopher Doyle cinematography is absolutely incredible. Sprinkle in a dash of a haunting score by James Newton Howard and you have one of Shyamalan’s most meticulously crafted films to date.

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#2:  Split (2017)

Split is the film that proved M. Night Shyamalan is back with a vengeance. He almost solely has James McAvoy to thank for it. This is a thriller about a man with multiple personality disorder who kidnaps a few young women.  The women try to appeal to certain personalities in certain ways in order to keep themselves from harm. Split could have been outrageously stupid with a lesser actor and the different performances would be hammy.  But, James McAvoy is absolutely incredible as he turns the film into a one-man show. Yes, Shyamalan directs the film well through his camerawork and pacing, but that was never the man’s problem.  All of that is irrelevant though as we watch McAvoy slip in and out of Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, Kevin, etc. He is so good and convincing in fact, that when the Beast starts to emerge, it is terrifying.  The Beast could have been extremely stupid, but it will have you cowering in fear.

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#1:  The Sixth Sense (1999)

This is the film that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map.  What’s more, it also brought back the incredible twist-ending trope back into the forefront.  However, the twist, which won’t be revealed in the infinitesimally small chance a reader doesn’t know it, isn’t what makes the film work so well.  Take out the twist, and The Sixth Sense is a terrifying, emotional, exciting ghost story.  It works so well because Bruce Willis’s Malcolm Crowe is very well written as a sympathetic psychiatrist who really wants to help the troubled Cole.  Speaking of Cole, Haley Joel Osment is also outstanding. Children are used in horror films all the time but rarely do they emulate fear and helplessness as much as Osment does.

All that being said, then there is the twist.  The cinematic world gave a huge collective gasp when it was revealed.  It is so good that every single person who had seen the film immediately wanted to rewatch it and pick out all the clues.  It was wonderful. The Sixth Sense, being nominated for six Oscars, is M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest film.  Let us hope that his resurgence with Glass means he has matured and will be providing us with great cinema again.

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