The Self Destruction of M. Night Shyamalan
As you can see by the date, this piece originates from 2010, but I’ve updated it to include a bunch of stuff about After Earth, which is at the bottom of the original text.
There will be spoilers in here for his first six movies, but come on.
I’m not sure if this is the most redundant article since ‘Hitler hated The Wiz,’ but I think, as movie nerds, there’s something to be learned from M. Night’s slide into awfulness, outside of giggling and drawing white splashes of semen across his face in MSPaint. As a case study, to look at his films, to step back with distance and chart the downfall, is to reveal a sedimentary-layer view of a man losing total control of his ego, and his own ability to objectively judge his own work.
There’s a huge clue in the book The Man who Heard Voices, which is devoted to the production of Lady in the Water. It’s clear that the author is wildly in love with Night, and makes no attempt to hide it. The way he plays with his buttons at the dinner table, the ease of those three-pointers he sinks at weekly basketball games with his buddies, and even his unusually long earlobes; the author can’t shut up about how bathed in ethereal light M. Night is, even when he’s squatting down and birthing some plops. Yet the slavering, lovelorn prose still can’t cover up the rampant egomania. The book covers, in great detail, how blown away Night is by a Disney executive who unthinkably failed to ‘get’ his script, and the soul-searching, sweaty-sheeted introspection about just what was wrong with other people, that they couldn’t see how incredible his story was. But putting all that aside, the one, simple thing that reveals just how he went from “I see dead people,” to “Bring me all your elderly!” is that the big twist in The Sixth Sense didn’t come until the twentieth-odd draft of the script. You can make the argument that the reveal was just rug-pulling window dressing on a really effective thriller, but it’s that twist that got people talking, the four words that shot into parroted pop-culture and shoved him right into the Hollywood A-list, where he was free to make pretty much whatever he wanted.
I figure Unbreakable was probably written before the crazy hype took over, because that’s at least on a par, if not better than Sixth Sense, but his third film, Signs, is the first time you spot those little warnings. Like the braying donkey laugh of a new girlfriend, you realise that pretty soon, we’re going to have a problem. Signs, again is pretty effective. I dig the whole focus on one family while the apparent end of the world outside becomes nigh, and it contains the best jump scare in modern cinema, but the first signs (shh) are there of this incessant need to tangle everything up and show the audience how clever he is. It’s a movie clearly written from the ending backwards, with Night obviously thinking about all the breadcrumb trails he’s going to leave.
The Village is where he really starts falling in the toilet. For the most part, it’s not a bad movie, in fact I kinda liked it up until the indescribably stupid ending. Adrien Brody does a strange performance that’s closer to a 1980’s British schoolboy doing an impression of Joey Deacon than the kind of special needs manchild that’ll land a guy an Oscar. Stick some buckteeth in that hee-hawing mouth and it’s Simple Jack. Anyway, up until The Village, any mention of Shyamalan’s name brought out those lazy, sneering accusations of him being obsessed with twists. It was completely Pavlovian, but often born out of people wilfully misunderstanding how storytelling works. Was it a twist when the Ghostbusters crossed the streams? Or when the Nazis were killed by opening the Ark? No, it’s just the way you tell a story. You don’t want the audience to see where you’re going, and you need the little curveballs, or we might as well just read the synopsis of every movie on Wikipedia before going to see it. A twist is The Sixth Sense. A twist is Fight Club. A twist is, well…The Village.
For me, the reveal that the — very creepily done — monsters were faked was enough, but then he wheels out that godawful ending, for no reason at all other than to let the stupid audience know that he’s so wicked smart, they never saw it coming. Although it was actually so signposted, if not for the disbelief that no big-time 21st century director would be so dense as to actually use such a hoary old cliché, plenty of people called it anyway. There was a quote at the time from an editor at a publisher of short stories, about how 90% of their rejected submissions ended with the twists of ‘Their home is actually an alien zoo!’ or ‘It was all a dream!’ or ‘You thought it was the past but actually, it was the present!’
Quickly moving on, there’s also the quite entertaining but pretty self-serving Sci Fi Channel mockumentary; Lady in the Water, aka the worst movie ever that he genuinely thought would be this generation’s ET; and The Happening, an exercise in how to make a movie about a virus that makes people stop what they’re doing and kill themselves as visually exciting as a pint glass filled with black paint. The most telling thing about all of these projects, and particularly the recent Last Airbender, comes from the promotional interviews. It’s obvious he has absolutely no clue he’s made bad movies. Clearly, at no point during production or any part of the process has somebody said to him “you know what…this isn’t so great…” I’d be stunned if, post-Unbreakable, any of the minions that surround him have dared utter a negative thought, or question the mighty creativity of M. Night Shyamalan, lest they be discarded like the obviously-insane Disney executive who rightly noticed that Lady in the Water reads like a children’s book written by someone in the middle of an ECT session.
This is where we go back to the line from the book. Surround yourself with people who’re too afraid to question you, spend a few years having smoke piped up your ricker by studios who’ll let you get away with whatever you want, and believe in all of the magazine covers and hype about being ‘The New Spielberg,’ and the twentieth draft never comes. The second or third draft; that’s good enough. “Monkey in a human suit, I’ve nailed it! M. Night does it again, yeah boiii!” And those terrible reviews and negative critics, well, it’s all persecution. “Oh, they hate my movies because my name’s on them…” Maybe that’s what he told himself when he got beaten up after announcing to his school friends that everyone should “call me Night now…” If the M. Night of 2010 had released his version of Sixth Sense, there’d have been no magazine covers and no three-picture deals.
You can even judge the slide into crazed delusion solely by his cameos. By Signs, he’d upped himself to the most crucial fluttering-butterfly-wings role in the story, and in Lady in the Water, he pushed it further, to the point he’s literally playing the single most important writer who will ever live, and whose ideas will change the world forever. Oh, and there’s a haughty, pretentious film critic who gets eaten by a monster. Even when he’s trying to prove how arrogant he isn’t by not showing his face, in The Village, the ridiculousness of not doing so turns it into a jokeless version of that Austin Powers scene where his genitals play hide and seek with various pieces of furniture. Anyone who had no idea who he was must have been wondering whichever super-important A-Lister was hiding behind a nudge, a wink and a ranger’s hat. Presumably he hasn’t made a cameo since because he’s waiting on that movie about the second coming.
Like the first carrier of a disease that gives the virus its name, Night’s downfall gives us clues as to what to look out for in other artists skidding down the same path. Case in point, you can see the same thing happening, albeit over an accelerated time frame, with Richard Kelly. The original cut of Donnie Darko had the perfect level of subtleties and reveals, to where you could argue over the correct interpretation and take something different from it than your buddy. The director’s cut was the early Signs-like clue about where he was headed as a filmmaker, filling in the blanks to the point where it was a bloated roleplaying manual, exhaustively explaining the rules that govern the universe he’d created. Maybe with less budget and a tighter schedule, he had to reign in the madness, which is why Southland Tales played like someone had taken his initial scrawly notebook of “things which would be cool in a movie” and put the entire thing onscreen. The Box would be the indicator of whether it was Darko or Southland that was the fluke, and it was the former. It started pretty well, with a nice, atmospheric 70’s paranoia feel, with Kelly setting up a lot of interesting mysteries that were begging for a worthwhile pay-off. Unfortunately the pay-offs – and the resulting schoolboy-with-ADHD-and-a-biro madness – lead to an ending that, well, it would be one of the 90% rejected by the aforementioned publisher. Kelly clearly needs some kind of filter, but after The Box and its material repetitious of his previous work, I think it’s pretty obvious that not only did he get out of control, but he’s also out of ideas.
With both Kelly and Night, the filter is gone. Night started as potentially one of the great modern filmmakers, but he’s got to the point where people physically recoil when they see his name. Unless he stops seeing himself as the modern Hitchcock, and accepts that he needs to try harder, he’s never going to make an even half-decent film ever again.
I know it’s cool to hate M. Night, especially now, but I hate because I loved. I really dig his earlier movies, and it hurts to see just how severe his downturn has been. The worst part is he just has no idea, and it’s all self-inflicted. Even so, I’d rather have an M. Night Shyamalan on his worst day than, say, a Brett Ratner, who might as well not exist. Who ever watched a movie and said “oh that shot was classic Ratner…” Yeah, Ratner and directors of his ilk get stuff made on time and on budget, but there’s not an ounce of creativity. You might as well just dump a sack of bricks into the director’s chair for all the flair and invention you’ll get. What a choice. M. Night Shyamalan, or a sack of bricks.
June 5th 2013 Update:
He’s done it again!
Night’s obvious path back from the breakneck slide into career destruction was to take stock and rebuild, with intimate, low-budget fare, to see if he could recapture some of that early brilliance. Or, I guess he could do an effects-heavy $200m summer movie, starring the biggest box office earner of the last two decades. The sum total of After Earth‘s achievements is taking that last remaining star guaranteed to bring in big returns, and putting him in a movie that opens at #3.
A Will Smith film not crashing straight in at number one, ears first, might be the thing that finally makes Hollywood sit up and say “enough.” You could put this Will-Bomb down to a number of other factors – the taint of Scientology; the super-positive man-of-the-people chatshow appearances feeling more PR rehearsed than ever before; the continued inclusion of a son who clearly inherited his charisma genes from his mother – but maybe nobody wants to see a film where the main character is called Cyper Raige. CYPHER RAIGE!
This might be the most unintentionally amazing name ever, as it’s right up there on that list of “names that would only ever be names in a movie,” like Arnie’s Jericho Cane from End of Days (which, to take us circular, is also the Rock’s name in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales), but also a fabulously 1990 idea of what people might be called in the future. I imagine future man Cypher Raige’s spaceship has the AI memory of a full dozen floppy discs, and that, like Busta Rhymes, he’s cruisin’ to the sound of his enhanced CD ROM. With a name like Cypher Raige (the inclusion of an ‘i’ making it even more futurey), After Earth became a film that was horribly dated the second the first line of dialogue got typed into Final Draft.
Night’s After Earth production tweets were something to behold, as he simpered on about each shot and edit evoking the emotional wonder and power of cinema, like a blind man telling you how clever his dog is, while stroking a furry toilet seat with a collar on it. Irritatingly, as we constantly see potentially awesome movies dropped from development as studios get jumpy about budgets, it seems like whatever he does, Hollywood just keeps throwing money at him to produce another stinker. How many better films were kept off the screen so that M. Night Shyamalan could fart out another one star abomination?
He’s beyond damaged goods at this point; he’s outright fucking awful, and one of the worst working directors of the last decade. Certainly, the ratio of ego:reality is as skewed as humanly possible. While you get the impression that the Brett Ratners and Michael Bays of the world know they’re making shit for pricks, this idiot truly believes each cinematic skidmark is a classic that families will be gathering together to watch for generations to come, as they weep with joy. He’s filmmaking at a SyFy Originals level, but with the budgets and creative freedom that could really do something, if not in the hands of a deranged incompetent.
This time, let’s hope so.