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What Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

What Happened To M. Night Shyamalan?

August 06, 2010

The biggest twist in this mega-famous NRI's career is that he has become a cinematic joke.



With the release of The Last Airbender last month, M. Night Shyamalan's reputation – already damaged by a lukewarm response to The Village and outright critical disgust at Lady in the Water and The Happening – has reached new depths.  Celebrated film critic Roger Ebert, who once championed Shyamalan’s natural skill and craft, wrote a ½ star out of 4 review and began with the following: “The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.”  This is it, the nadir of one of the world’s more famous NRIs.  Having had the film world at his feet a decade ago, in 2010 he cannot possibly sink any lower…

Back in 1999, Shyamalan’s star was not simply rising but exploding into awareness.  I still remember the impact that The Sixth Sense had upon its release. Five-storey billboards whetted anticipation, and four- and five-star reviews dropped in virtually every newspaper. It was a restrained ghost story, beautiful and enigmatic with a twist that had all the kids at school talking for weeks.  This American NRI with an unpronounceable name had, out of nowhere, dazzled the world – and all by himself!  Sure, he had some support from a perfectly pitched study in understatement by Bruce Willis and the dramatic revelation that was eight-year-old Haley Joel Osment, but he had written and directed the thing all on his own.  It was one of the biggest breakout hits in film history, taking over US$600 million at the box office, and Shyamalan was all set to become the Spielberg of the new millennium.

Shyamalan’s work in the early part of the 00s saw a theme develop, and not one that brought favour from all corners.  With The Sixth Sense’s success having relied so heavily on the hype surrounding its twist ending, Unbreakable and Signs saw a steadily growing backlash to Shyamalan’s continued devotion to pulling the wool over his audience’s eyes.  Still, punters turned up in their droves to see how they could be fooled again, with each film turning a huge profit.  Even if he had become ‘that twist ending guy’, Shyamalan was wildly successful, and the studios knew it as they granted him almost unprecedented creative and budgetary freedom.  This, of course is a dangerous thing; if a director’s ego is left unrestrained – especially if that director is a child of privilege who wanted for nothing growing up – the results can be messy.

In the meantime, The Village – which came next in 2004 – was the film that best displayed Shyamalan’s filmic sensibilities, and its public reaction offered the sharpest insight into just what sort of a hole he had dug for himself.  As with each of his previous efforts, this was a slow-burning, grand-yet-subtle tone poem (until the climax, of course, which in the eyes of this humble viewer was completely satisfying)… and audiences HATED it.  In the newspapers and in the streets, word of mouth spread like wildfire: ‘don’t go and see The Village, it’s rubbish!’  After a massive opening weekend ticket sales dropped by more than 60%, leaving Shyamalan questioning whether he should have banked on a twist based on deception as opposed to the prominent elements of faith in his previous efforts.  However, where he really went wrong was in expecting audiences to happily sit through a couple of hours of gorgeous period drama before getting to the big payoff.  Audiences expected Shyamalan to wow them again, but by the time that Big TwistTM came, they were already lost to boredom.

It was Lady in the Water that saw the circling wolves break into a feeding frenzy.  Shyamalan had not only conceived of a laughable insult of a fairytale, but included within it both a cynical, arrogant film critic (got an axe to grind, Night?) AND a visionary Indian storyteller who would change the world (in case we missed the point, he played this role himself).  Having put so much effort into defying audience expectation with a period romance in the guise of another Twist Movie, Shyamalan’s disappointment at the reaction to The Village had led him to indulge a childlike flight of fantasy to a point where he seemed to forget that he even had an audience – and studio investors – to please.  The Happening followed in 2008, a potentially brilliant horror epic that perhaps could have been exactly that, or at least an interesting diversion, if Shyamalan had just shed all his excruciatingly poor dialogue from the script.  Again, the critics piled on him with glee and threatened to prematurely end a career that, once so promising, had become a self-reflexive joke.

Which brings us to Airbender, somehow more poorly received than any of the above.  The question remains: can Shyamalan restore his reputation? Airbender's sales figures would suggest that he will indeed be allowed near the director's / producer’s / writer’s chair in Hollywood again, so it would appear to be a matter of which reputation he seeks to restore: that of the lyrical, poetic film genius, that of the king of twist endings, or something else entirely.  Personally, I feel much the same about him as I do about Quentin Tarantino – if either were to exercise putting their vanity to one side and direct from somebody else’s script, the result could be something truly special, as well as help them to see the bigger picture in subsequent outings.  With the remnants of Shyamalan’s ego strewn across our screens, however, the bigger question perhaps isn't whether or not he can rise again; it's whether or not we want him to.


32 Comments

  • ravi swami
    By
    ravi swami
    12.10.10 03:23 PM
    Still haven't seen it, but 312M sounds impressive.

    Liked the titles to "Devil", v.clever and another closely observed storyline.

    Just to clarify, my comments about comparisons to the Twilight Zone imply that I wasn't a fan of that show, but quite the contrary - it set a benchmark, but especially in terms of its economy - suited to the medium, which is largely absent in contemporary "big-screen" films - watching a film where people say things which are actually pivotal to the story and reveal the character can come as a bit of a shock these days.
  • shyamalan
    By
    shyamalan
    12.10.10 01:58 PM
    The Last Airbender up to 312M USD gross
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    05.10.10 11:12 PM
    Ravi Swami, I never thought of it that way, but I see what you mean. That closely observed nature you speak of is exactly what I love most about The Village, which I think is my favourite of his films thus far.

    Jeet, yeah, wow! Glad someone likes it. I still haven't had a chance to see it for myself...
  • Jeet
    By
    Jeet
    05.10.10 08:41 PM
    The Last Airbender has now made 300M USD and it is still going! I really hope there is a sequel and Shyamalan gets to direct it!
  • ravi swami
    By
    ravi swami
    13.09.10 08:27 PM
    Much as I liked The Sixth Sense (who doesn't ?) - what irritates slightly about Shyamalans more personal works are their similarity to The Twilight Zone - but just expanded to feature format - ie they seem to have a very small screen feel about them.

    But then I suppose as TV fights for viewer attention more these days compared to the TV of the 60s, these kind of small closely observed stories just don't get a look in elsewhere...
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    10.09.10 03:02 PM
    Sure, but no need to shout.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.09.10 02:50 PM
    I GUESS WE'RE JUST GOING TO HAVE TO AGREE TO DISAGREE, THEN
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    10.09.10 01:24 PM
    Well, the only objective measure you have is that of box office receipts. Critical acclaim or ratings on websites such as rotten tomatoes or IMDB are lessened in impact because the number of people reviewing is such a small subset of the full moviegoing public. Therefore, if box office receipts are high and critical acclaim is low, it follows that the critics are wrong and the public enjoyed the film.

    I agree that the studios take marketing budgets into consideration, but my point is that they are generally unknown. Therefore the argument that marketing budgets are high applies to all films and you cannot judge based on that as you don't know what the marketing budgets are. All we know is an estimate of the production budget and thus all films need to to be judged against that.

    Your last point you refute yourself as you clearly don't have any figures to back it up.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.09.10 12:54 AM
    As I said in an earlier comment - and it bears repeating - tickets sold/money in the bank most definitely DOES NOT equal satisfied customers. I once paid $9 to see 'Doom', one of the most inept motion pictures of our time. It doesn't mean I liked it.

    If you can give me an indication that the masses like Airbender (and that there is a disconnect between critics and the general public) through a means other than quoting box office figures, I will be much more willing to consider your argument seriously.

    And, er, what? Because we don't know exact figures for marketing budgets, we shouldn't take them into consideration? I'm pretty sure the studios take them into consideration, man.

    One more thing - don't forget that this is a film aimed more towards kids, never the most discerning viewers. Few will have gone along knowing it was a Shyamalan film. In fact, many will have been parked in the cinema by parents eager to get some respite. (No, I don't have any figures to back this up.)
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    09.09.10 10:21 PM
    Well, I used the term universal dislike in applying to critics and journalists specifically. Perhaps I did not make that clear. It is obvious from the fact that the movie has taken 270M USD already and still going that the dislike has nothing to do with the audience. So, as an indicator of popularity, the only real objective measure you have is that of box office takings. I am not putting my opinion above those of the critics, the whole audience is! The same reasoning applies to his other films - the audience keeps on watching, the critics keep on getting it wrong.

    As for your points :

    1) This argument applies to all movies - nobody knows the marketing budgets. There were rumours that Avatar cost a total of 500M USD to make including marketing. This is not a valid argument as all movies have the same issue.
    2) Again, given the numbers I would argue that it is the critics, not the general public, who think his films have gotten worse - the public still loves him and keeps going to see his movies.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    07.09.10 04:55 PM
    Jack,

    I am happy to take your comment of August 31 as your opinion. In no way, however, do I think that your positive opinion of the film is proof of a global smear campaign against Shyamalan. You yourself used the words "universal dislike" to describe reaction to Airbender, which are particularly unequivocal, and saying that you are correct and the 'universal dislike' is incorrect would imply that you are positioning your own thoughts above those of both film critics and the populace in general. For yourself, that is fine - everyone should be allowed to trust their own opinion of what they like and dislike - but to apply that rule of logic to everyone, with particular disdain for the critical elite, is not reasonable. Hey, I'm glad you liked the movie, and I will definitely have to see it for myself and report my findings, but I think a step back might be in order here. Who's a filmmaker you can't stand? I'll bet there are dozens of voices out there quite ready to tell you why they love his or her work, and tell you with respect for your opinion.

    As for your comment today, some points:
    1) Those budget figures do not include marketing budgets, which are often more than production costs - The Village (a film I adore) is the big one here. Factor those marketing budgets in, and some of those films barely turned a profit in their cinematic run.
    2) As stated in the article, I completely agree that Shyamalan's career is far from over. It's his reputation as a maker of quality and/or interesting films that is in decline, according to the reception given to his films by critics and the general public. My main question in the article regards whether he will recover that reputation, and how he will do it.
    3) Movie studios are businesses, and the bottom line definitely rules all. This is sometimes a sad fact. For sure, any studio would be happy to have Shyamalan on board (even if it's only for the controversy surrounding his name), which is why he continues to be able to make films.
    4) Nobody 'has it in' for Shyamalan. They just think he's made some terrible films, and wish he would return to his earlier heights. It's not personal. You do understand that I wish him no ill will and that I hope he succeeds, right?
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    07.09.10 04:21 PM
    I would also like to comment on the idea that Shyamalan's career is over or that he has gone off track. If you look at the numbers :

    Sixth Sense – budget 40MM, Gross revenue 673MM
    Unbreakable – budget 75MM, Gross revenue 250 MM
    Signs – budget 72MM, Gross revenue 408MM
    The Village – budget 60MM, Gross revenue 257MM
    The Happening – budget 48MM, gross revenue 163MM
    The lady in the water – Ok, I’ll give you that one, but actually it still basically broke even.

    TLA is now up to 260M USD and still going strong. None of the numbers above include DVD sales or merchandising so even these are understated.

    I think it is clear that any movie studio would be happy to have those types of numbers generated by a director.

    It seems that it is only critics who have it in for Shyamalan, the people (who are the ones who really count at the end of the day) still love him and keep going to see his films.
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    31.08.10 08:41 PM
    Well, I have seen the film now in 3D and it has just confirmed my worst fears. This universal dislike of the film is just rubbish and a smear campaign on Shyamalan.

    As a film, Airbender was actually extremely enjoyable. My wife and I went to see it and we aren't even kids and even we enjoyed it! The action, special effects and storyline were outstanding. I also liked all the asian influences and the fact that there were lots of desis in good strong roles as aggressors and heroes (sort of)for once, instead of being nerds or geeks as they are usually portrayed in the western media.

    I'm not saying that it was the best film ever made and it probably does not match up to something like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. But it was no way as bad as it was made out to be - the critics and journalists should really be ashamed of themselves for their clear hatred of Shyamalan. The film was nowhere near as bad as they made it out to be.

    All in all I would recommend everyone go and see it, especially with the kids.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    30.08.10 05:13 PM
    Dave, I like your style. When it comes to wordplay, you're obviously WIDE AWAKE. :D
  • Krunal Dave
    By
    Krunal Dave
    30.08.10 06:11 AM
    Night Shyamalan is one of my favorite filmmaker after Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. The Sixth Sense was masterpiece. However, I still do not agree with critics that he has lost his reputation.

    "Lady in the Water" is my favorite film in terms of story telling and character development. We are not suppose to expect twist ending in a plot like fairy tail. It was the movie about connecting two different world and people together. It is really difficult to tell story with unexpected obstacles using a Motel, swimming pool and few characters.

    "The Happening" was really thrilling from the beginning. Just by using windy trees and weired suicides, Shyamalan really created the non-stoppable thrill. I didn't like his last ten pages of the script. He could have given better twisted ending.

    At last, I do agree with the title of this article that he needs to restore his originality. When I saw the trailer of The Last Airbender, it seems like he is BREAKABLE, something is not really HAPPENING and losing his SIXTH SENSE gradually....
  • Gori Girl
    By
    Gori Girl
    24.08.10 03:19 AM
    Oh, I'll be the maverick -- I really liked Avatar Airbender. But that's because I didn't view it as a Shyamalan film, but a live-action version of an anime series that my kids and I really love.

    I think everyone's being too hard on him and expecting too much of him from what is essentially a kid comic crossover. You can't be artsy with someone else's storyline aimed at youngins.

    Now, burn me at the stake if you must, but please make sure it's by one of those yummy young Fire Nation desis.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    23.08.10 08:57 PM
    Hi Anantha, I did mention 'Signs' - in the third paragraph - which I also admired in a lot of ways, though like many others I found the climax and ending pretty frustrating for various reasons.

    I really hope he gets back on track soon.
  • Anantha Krishnan
    By
    Anantha Krishnan
    21.08.10 04:38 PM
    Hey. The author totally forgot about the 2002 flik by Shyamalan called 'Signs'.A good thriller involving supernatural elements. It goes down as Night's second best. But yes, ever since The Village (which I liked), the director has been on a downward slide. Needs to get his act together if he can survive any further.
  • Nilesh
    By
    Nilesh
    21.08.10 09:57 AM
    Same as what happened to Ram Gopal Verma!!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    13.08.10 03:17 PM
    @Mervin - Thanks for the support. As for my line about him being a 'child of privilege', although it is fact according to many sources, I did make an implication there that this had a direct influence on his ego and decline in quality. This is an opinion I hold but of course cannot confirm as fact. Perhaps I should've been more clear about that in my choice of words, and apologise if I came across as too judgmental.

    @Jack - apologies for the sarcasm earlier, your personal attacks got my back up a little bit - and I know understand your agenda. I can't speak for the editor but I would suggest that this site does indeed support the NRI community; the way you and I (at least) differ is in our definitions of the word 'support'. In this case, I believe supporting the community also means being honest, as I find this to be one of the pillars of responsible journalism, and from such honesty great progress can be made. While this article hardly shines its light into any particularly dark cracks pertaining to the lives of NRIs, I saw fit to tell it how I see it.

    Going the other way and papering over the cracks, in the interests of supporting a particular group or community, can be a particularly destructive kind of censorship. If something you care about has negative elements, shouldn't you show that you care by speaking up about those elements? Isn't it more honest to support the spirit ahead of the status quo (though they can be the same thing)?
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    13.08.10 02:29 PM
    Unfortunately, I neither have the time nor the inclination to write an article. But now I understand where you are coming from, I can see that your blog has no particular interest in supporting the NRI community. It is merely an observer. That is fine.

    Good luck with it - we are all on the same side at the end of the day - I hope we all never forget that.
  • Mervin
    By
    Mervin
    12.08.10 12:32 PM
    Interesting read. I think it's axiomatic that M.Night has made a few hits and many misses in his career. I don't think there is anything racist about pointing that out. It's a fact, most of his films are terrible. And with the Last Airbender he really stubbed at my heart because I'm in love with the television series.
    Jack, is right though. I may not like M.Night as a Director and for denting my favorite show, but the author really needed to go easy with the whole, "child of privilege who wanted for nothing growing up". That was way out of line, but good review/article nonetheless.
  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    11.08.10 03:25 PM
    Jack, I hear where you are coming from and now know what particularly put your back up. For that, I have to make a confession - I chose the image! I wanted to elicit a reaction. You know what they say about being careful what you wish for...

    It is not my chief objective to "support" the NRI community. I would not even know how to do that. I am aware that the NRI community is such a disparate group. If it was not for British rule, India would not even be one country. I have travelled the length and breadth of India, and if you have too, you will know what I mean.

    What I do want to achieve is to produce a magazine that engages the widest possible audience by virtue of a writing team with varying backgrounds and perspectives.

    On a final note, you can assist me with my aims by making a contribution. In fact, I will lay down a challenge if you think you are up to it:) Why don't you put together a tribute to Shyamalan as a riposte to Barnaby's post and to create some balance?
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    11.08.10 03:08 PM
    Well, yes but the difference is that as NRIs we are generally a minority. Therefore we have less power and less say in what goes on. So it is not the same as an NRI writing in the western media - the power is skewed so clearly the other way.

    We, as NRIs and people who support the NRI cause, need to stick up for each other and support each other. People who understand the struggles that NRIs face and have faced them themselves would instantly understand that and it does not need explaining.

    For this writer to put such a puerile image at the top of his article just highlights, to me, his inability to take this situation seriously.

    The hate wagon on Shyamalan irks me - and I really do feel that there is an element of racism in the vitriol and viciousness that gets thrown his way. Even George Lucas doesn't get it that bad!

    We need to support as much as possible, and within reason NRIs. This blog and these types of blogs should try and highlight the positives of NRI culture as much as possible. As I said, we are a minority and we need support and positivity. Not knocking each other down. And it irks even more when someone who is not even an NRI has the right to come on an NRI blog and then diss NRIs. To me there is something wrong with that, especially as the person has no understanding of challenges and issues faced by NRIs.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.08.10 02:42 PM
    Thanks for keeping it real, boss, I was starting to get a bit puerile. Jack does raise some interesting points of his own and in the interests of free speech, anyone - be they NRI or otherwise - should be allowed to express their thoughts (as long as they relate somehow to the interests of NRIs).
  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    11.08.10 02:36 PM
    Jack, thank you for your contributions thus far. You raise some interesting points, e.g. racism within the film industry, but I would kindly ask you to refrain from judging who can and cannot write about NRIs on this site. As the editor, and an NRI, I have made those decisions here. In my view I think it is as acceptable for a white man (especially one living in India) writing about the international Indian community, as an NRI journalist writing for a western newspaper making comment about western society.

    Being an NRI does not give us any special privileges in writing about the "NRI community" as diverse as it is.

    That said I genuinely welcome your participation even if you vehemently object against the author's viewpoint. Should you feel particularly strongly about an issue I am happy to give you an opportunity to cover it as a post on this site.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.08.10 02:31 PM
    You know what, Jack, you're absolutely right. I should not be allowed to write on this blog. I will contact the editor immediately and resign my post.

    In fact, I think your point should extend further. We should call all journalists out of Baghdad because as non-Iraqis, they are clearly not qualified to write about the situation there and write far too few articles that support either the new government or the American presence. We should also retroactively discredit the work of Edward Evans-Pritchard because as a Britisher, he could't possibly have had any kind of understanding of the Nuer people.
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    11.08.10 02:19 PM
    No offence mate - but you are not even an NRI so you actually have no right to write about NRIs at all. What do you know about his "privileged" upbringing? Do you know what it is like to be a considered a foreigner in the west? No, you don't and you never will so I am not even sure why you are allowed to write on this blog.

    Do you know why he is even called M night? Because the kids in his "privileged" upbringing couldn't or wouldn't say his name properly. Do you know any of the struggles he has had to face - can you imagine being one of the few asian directors in an industry dominated by caucasians (and a notoriously racist stereotyping industry at that)? No, you can't.

    If you truly believe in the NRI cause, you should be attempting to support Shyamalan, not bring him down. He acts as a role model for NRIs everywhere by being successful in a western dominated industry, and, I might add, without losing his "indianness".

    Frankly, I think you are worse than useless on this blog and as a film critic, especially if all you are going to do is ape Ebert.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.08.10 01:34 PM
    Sigh, Jack... I have a feeling you won't be back, but what the hey. I can assure you that I ignore all bandwagons, however laden with sweetmeats they may be! My article was a reporting of the current critical climate surround MNS, along with some of my own commentary.

    I also realise that Shyamalan's films have nearly all been successful, and comment explicitly upon this several times in the article, but your generalisation that 'the audience loves his films' is far wider and less accurate than any I might have made in the article. Once and for all, bums on seats does NOT mean satisfied customers.

    Your comment about critics and journalists being out of touch throws open a much bigger question, that of whether a critical elite who earn the right to gain wide awareness of their views is necessary at all. As an appreciator of film I like to know what other people think, and if they are consistent in their judgments and write well (like Roger Ebert), I develop a trust in their opinion. They might even open my eyes to something I wouldn't have taken notice of, which is always a joy.

    In case you missed it, I have great respect for the first half of Shyamalan's output thus far, and hope The Village will one day see its due as an unappreciated masterpiece. I also hope Shyamalan himself will start making good films again. But given his massive ego and apparent downward slide, I'm not holding my breath.
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    11.08.10 01:43 AM
    This author is so wrong it's not even funny. I personally think the way the media has rounded on Shyamalan is shameful ( and may even smack of a hint of racism). The key here is that critics and journalists don't seem to realize that the audience loves his films and keeps going to see them. He has made massive amounts for the studios (and they are businesses after all - they wouldn't keep bankrolling him if they didn;t think it was worth it. Now, what that tells me is that the critics and journalists are out of touch with the audience, not Shyamalan.

    And this guy here is just jumping on the bandwagon of Shyamalan hate. Get your own opinion, don't be a puppet of the popular media.
  • Sandeep
    By
    Sandeep
    08.08.10 01:45 PM
    I have mixed feeling for Shyamalan, as do most people, I guess. Aside from feeling very sorry for him, I agree with most of the criticism he receives. However, I do think he'll continue to improve. I believed a lot of people missed the point of The Village, and that with the Sixth Sense he may have pigeon-holed himself. Although Lady in the Water was quite disappointing.

    With films such as The Happening, you can tell he's discovered interesting subject matter, but failed to deliver in a serious and gripping fashion. Almost to a point where things become laughable.

    Any way, I look forward to Devil, it's part of a horror series he's producing. The advert certainly had me hooked.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBgpmNFD6xM
  • MdMuddassir shah
    By
    MdMuddassir shah
    07.08.10 09:42 AM
    I totally concur.
    Those days when 6th sense released, we were looking forward to other films of Shyamalan.
    SOmething somewhere is surely amiss with him

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