There are some film directors whose works are so consistently great, or, their products are so overwhelmingly popular that even the average person knows their name. Alfred Hitchcock was one. Steven Spielberg is another, and despite the fact that his name is hard to both say and spell, M. Night Shyamalan is up there as well.
Shyamalan is not as old as Hitchcock or Spielberg, and has so far only directed eight films, but, as it's shaping up, Shyamalan is fast becoming a one-hit wonder. His movie The Sixth Sense (1999) was a raging success both financially and critically. It's one of the top 30-grossing movies of all time, and it earned two Oscar nominations, as well as the approval of over 80 percent of its critics, according to the Rotten Tomatoes Web site. That film set a bar so high, like that of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), Shyamalan can't hope to live up to it, let alone cross it!
The Sixth Sense was a cinematic suprise. It was a creepy ghost story with a twist ending that proved Shyamalan's brilliance in writing and, because of the way it was done, managed to fool audiences around the world of a completely false reality. It also showcased his amazing ability to craft a great visual tale. Shyamalan could certainly be ranked up there with Hitchcock, as one of the preeminent horror or thriller directors.
The emphasis, however, is on the word "could" because it seems that ever since The Sixth Sense, the writer-director has only been getting worse. Shyamalan in fact killed his chances of ever garnering such a honor after he made, what is arguably one of the worst movies ever put in theaters in the last half-decade. The Lady in the Water (2006) was Shyamalan reaching the end of a downward slope, which had actually started three movies prior.
In the eight years following The Sixth Sense, I have to ask if Shyamalan has simply been unlucky? Is he really just a one-trick pony, or, are there other things going on, which are bringing him down? And, yes, he is being brought down. The Sixth Sense earned nearly $300 million in the domestic box office. Shyamalan's follow-up Unbreakable (2000) made a fair but lackluster $95 million. He rebounded with Signs (2002), but since then, his novelty has been fading until he really took a beating and his Lady in the Water (2006) only brought in a measly $42 million when it cost $75 million to make, not including advertising costs.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, Shyamalan's critical acceptance has been on the decline as well. Starting with The Sixth Sense, which got 84 percent approval, Shyamalan could only muster 24 percent with Lady in the Water, meaning 152 reviewers out of 200 hated the film, most of them agreeing that the movie was simply boring. Again, I have to ask why. Why did he slip?
In an article for Newsweek published six years ago, Jeff Giles wrote that Shyamalan was the highest paid screenwriter, given $5 million by Disney to pen Signs (2002). In the article, Giles suggested that Shyamalan might be cocky and a little arrogant.
Shyamalan's fans might eschew such labels, but Giles reported that Shyamalan got into a bit of a scruff with Harvey Weinstein, the former chairman of Miramax Films, over Shyamalan's second feature, Wide Awake (1998). Weinstein is the producer of such Oscar-winning films, such as The English Patient (1996) and Good Will Hunting (1997). Weinstein had merely suggested some changes to Shyamalan's movie and Shyamalan had a tantrum, which ultimately ended in tears and the two men parting ways.
Giles reported that Shyamalan now brushes off independent and arthouse films, the kind that Weinstein loves, as almost being beneath him. His standpoint is that he doesn't want to make movies. He instead wants to create phenomenons.
It's good that he has lofty goals, but could the now 37-year-old be getting too big for his britches? Shyamalan refuses to go to or make his movies anywhere near Hollywood. He instead prefers to work in his isolated, and rather affluent, bubble just outside of Philadelphia.
Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, wrote a book, which got published in July 2006 called The Man Who Heard Voices. The book was all about M. Night Shyamalan, specifically during the time he was making Lady in the Water. The book exposes behind-the-scenes drama, including more tears shed, when Shyamalan was essentially slapped down for his hubris.
In the book, we learn that in February 2005, Shyamalan handed over his script for Lady in the Water to some Disney executives for review. The executives did not like the script. They thought it had major problems. The executives thought Shyamalan gave himself too big a role. They said the script had too much exposition, and used elements Shyamalan had never used before that might not be appropriate from a branding perspective. These concerns are exactly the criticisms that columnists like Roger Ebert would throw at Shyamalan a year later.
The Disney executives turned out to be right. They thought the script was too ridiculous and somewhat awful, but Shyamalan wouldn't hear any of it. According to Bamberger, Shyamalan took their comments very personally. Instead of taking constructive criticism, which the executives were nicely trying to give, Shyamalan threw the success of The Sixth Sense in their faces and quit Disney.
Reportedly, Shyamalan shed some tears, like a big baby, and then took his script over to Warner Bros. The company basically let Shyamalan make Lady in the Water, as he had originally intended. The result, as most film critics described, was a cocky and arrogant disaster, which sank like a stone at the box office.
When Shyamalan made the cover of Newsweek magazine in 2002, underneath his picture, the caption read, "The Next Spielberg." Three creatively questionable films later, that caption could not be further from the truth. Shyamalan appears to be chasing after The Sixth Sense, trying to regain his old glory.
He thinks he can re-create that same experience, that same success, but he can't. Not that he's following a predictable formula, Shyamalan seems restrained to do only movies that are mysterious, if hollow, semi-scary, if also semi-ridiculous. He's put himself in a box. He's shackled himself and seems to refuse to set himself free. He seems to think uniformly and with a very narrow vision.
Shyamalan told Newsweek he ranks Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as one of his favorite films, but the thing about Spielberg is that, in the middle of doing those Indiana Jones movies in the 1980s, he directed The Color Purple (1985). After doing Jurassic Park (1993), he directed Schindler's List (1993). After War of the Worlds (2005), Spielberg went straight into Munich (2005). Each one of those serious movies went on to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture.
It goes to show that Spielberg has never limited himself. He's never put himself in a box. He can do a movie about a globe-trotting archeologist one minute and the next a movie about an impoverished black woman struggling with rural life. He can do a movie about dinosaurs in the modern age and follow-up with a film about the Holocaust. Spielberg has proven that longevity, as a director, comes with having range and building diversity in your portfolio.
Obviously, some filmmakers are only interested in certain subjects, doing certain kinds of movies, and some have their own styles, which they maintain for the length of their careers. Nevertheless, when something isn't working, be it a subject or a style, what will perpetuating stubbornness prove? Shyamalan's style has not been working lately, so why does he perpetuate it?
Shyamalan has failed with almost every film following The Sixth Sense, either financially, or critically and creatively. That's eight years of failure. Yet, he refuses to change or try anything new. His new film The Happening (2008) looks a lot like a combo of his last movies, most especially Signs, which was his only film that didn't completely bomb.
Has Shyamalan learned anything? Is he so stubborn, so arrogant, so shut off from the world, out on his Main Line estate, just outside Philadelphia that he's become his own worst enemy? I'm afraid to say that he has.
Even if this new movie is a hit, Shyamalan is the cinematic equivalent of a phonograph with its needle stuck in a groove. He's stuck repeating himself. Shyamalan, I beg you, break free. Do something different. Even Wes Craven did a romantic comedy!