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.