What’s Happening to M. Night Shyamalan?

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(Note: I wrote this post after the release of The Happening two years ago. I thought it might be interesting to continue the conversation now that Shymalan has again sabotaged his once-promising career.)

M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Happening, opened this past weekend and as a big fan of most of his work, I made sure I was there on opening day to see it. When I left the theater, I was dumbfounded. I was shocked and horrified. Is it that good? Well…no, it’s that bad. It’s a train wreck, a film so inconsistent, so incoherent, so poorly shot, edited, directed, and resolved, so carelessly crapped onto the screen that it’s a mystery to me how it came out of the same creative well as movies like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Something has gone seriously awry in the land of Shyamalan. Why is this happening?

First let me tell you why I like Shyamalan’s work. It’s very distinct, and no, I don’t mean it’s marked by a ‘twist’ at the end. I think his success with The Sixth Sense unfairly set up an expectation that all of his films would have that same sort of shocking reveal in the third act. When I say distinct, I mean in style. His dialogue (full of pregnant pauses), framing (long reaction shots), and pacing (slow burn) are all very recognizable, very quirky, and for the most part (for me) very enjoyable. And then there are his undeniable spiritual themes and focus on character detail. I could dial in the Theolo-vision(tm) on his movies all day long.

His rise started with The Sixth Sense, a movie I admired for its cleverness and execution but didn’t really care for on any emotional level. It wasn’t until Unbreakable that I realized that Shyamalan was someone whose work I was going to get attached to. Unbreakable was not only truly unique, it was emotionally powerful. There are all sorts of truths in it about embracing who we are born to be, becoming the hero within, that sort of thing. Of course, it starred Samuel L. Jackson too, and seriously, how can you not love that guy?

Then there was Signs. This is one I can watch again and again and again. It’s just a great movie. Well acted, well directed, well written. And it had to be, because if it hadn’t been all of those things, then the entire film could have collapsed under that huge logical problem of aliens invading a planet made up of 70% water, a substance that is lethal to them. I mean seriously, all they had to do was wait for it to rain. But that didn’t matter to most of us because we cared about the people in the movie, the aliens were just a device providing conflict for the greater story of a man’s struggle with his own faith.

The Village is my favorite of his films and one of my all-time favorite movies period. It awed me and moved me to tears the first time I saw it and it gets richer and deeper with every viewing. It’s just a stunningly beautiful film. I’d love to have a poster of the shot of Ivy’s hand held out into the darkness as the monsters are coming and she refuses to withdraw because she knows Lucius will come for her. And when he does, at the last possible moment, and that incredible violin piece in the score plays…wow, it’s just transcendent. Once again, it works because I care so deeply for Ivy and Lucius that I’m willing to trust the storyteller to take me anywhere so long as he remembers to come back to what’s actually at stake.

On the heels of that, I couldn’t imagine what on earth he could do to top it. Lady in the Water was his attempt, and the beginning of his fall.I wanted to love this movie and in some individual parts, I did.But it didn’t hold water (har-har).It was too many pieces trying to fit into a cohesive whole.The mythology was too foreign, too complex, the characters were too many to get to know individually.At the end of the day, it didn’t work because I didn’t care enough about anyone and, in my indifference, I was left to see the holes in the rest of the film.

Some people may not have heard what happened during the making of the film. From what I’ve read, a lot of people told Shyamalan that the film had serious problems but he ignored their advice. Sometimes, I think the best thing an artist can do is ignore the critics and go his own way, but sometimes the critics are right. This was such a case. There was a good film lurking in the script but Shyamalan smothered it. On one hand I applaud him for going his own way, but on the other, I wish he’d listened to the people that tried to advise him otherwise because I feel like we, the audience, were robbed of a good story.

Okay, he stumbled. He put out a stinker. No problem, happens to us all. Time for the comeback. The Happening.The movie starts out wonderfully.It’s creepy.It’s a great set up.It’s got everywhere in the world to go. But all those quirky shots and that stilted dialogue that worked so many times before are broken in the extreme here.I can see how this movie was supposed to work conceptually, I can imagine it taking form in his brain, I can see what he wanted and where he wanted it to go but it didn’t translate onto the screen at all.The performances are bad across the board, the dialogue is almost pure exposition, shots are framed wrong, cut together wrong, it’s funny where it should be frightening, and eye-rolling when it tries to be funny, it tries to be scientific but is so full of logical problems that you can’t buy into it on any level.

Outside of two or three creepy shot sequences, the film is completely broken. It’s Battlefield Earth broken, Mystery Science Theater 3000 broken. By the end, I almost felt like it was bad on purpose. There is a scene with an old woman near the climax that is so bizarre that I honestly had no idea whether it was supposed to be funny or disturbing. And when we finally do get to the climax of the story, it’s supposed to be emotional, but it’s not. We don’t care anything about the characters. I don’t blame the actors for this, Zoe Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg are fine actors. I blame the director. It’s the director’s job to see the performances and know whether or not they are working.

So I want my Shyamalan back. What’s the solution here? Here’s my advice, I think it’s time to get back to basics. Forget all the weird set-ups and get back to making movies about people, about how they act and interact. Maybe it’s time to collaborate. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Some smart guy said that once. Personal style is well and good but maybe it’s time for Shymalan to step outside his own little box and relearn some things. If you can sell a relationship between two people (and he has) then you can take your audience anywhere. Forget about selling the premise, sell the people in it. If you want me to care about Mark Wahlberg walking across a field to die with the woman he loves, then I need to believe he loves her more than anything else on earth. I can’t even remember her name. That’s how much I cared.

It would be really be interesting to sit in a room with M. Night and watch The Happening with him just so I could pause it every few seconds to ask him what on EARTH he was thinking. How can a person that has clearly demonstrated an understanding of cinema put together a film that misfires at every opportunity? Hopefully the experience of making something as abominable as The Happening will be a catalyst for some sort of creative rebirth. I’ll still look forward to his next film because I think he’s capable of more goodness like The Village and Signs but I don’t know how his career can stand another event like The Happening.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


26 Comments

  1. Matt McBrien

    I’m with you 100% on this one. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of his previous films, but this one was just… shockingly bad. I found myself laughing at parts that were supposed to be suspenseful or dreadful. It was just bad. Really bad.

  2. Jeff Cope

    I’ve never been an admirer of his work. I enjoyed Sixth Sense, but haven’t cared for anything since.

    Lady in the Water showed me he didn’t care anymore. Someone re-watch that one and tell me how many times the boom mike intrudes into the frame. It was so prevalent throughout the film that my wife and I were searching for a deeper meaning in the boom mikes! Surely they were on purpose?

    No. It was just sloppy film making.

  3. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I’m with you Pete (though I haven’t seen The Happening yet. It seemed clear to me that it was only worthy of a rental). LOVE his work, and have been mourning the decline of this director.

    I’m TOTALLY with you on The Village – my personal fave. It’s especially good after repeated viewings. In fact, it was in the repeated viewings that I fell in love with it. If you watch it once, you mostly only experience the gimmick of the twist. Repeated viewings reveal the brilliance of the score, the cinematography, the nuanced performances… great film. The scene you referenced is one of the top 10 memorable movie scenes to me – where he takes her hand just in time to whisk her inside away from the monster, the music perfectly setting the emotion. It’s more of a dance than anything else…

    However, I didn’t mind Lady In The Water. I went into it knowing that it was a film he made more for his children than for critical acclaim. We watched it with our boys (including our 3 year old) and it works on that level I think. My kids loved it – especially the 3 year old. Though it’s a far cry from Unbreakable, I thought it entertained as a suspenseful family film. I didn’t watch it very critically.

    Unbreakable – wow! What a great film – especially the abundance of long shots with no edits. Loved it.

    And there is an obvious Christian consciousness to all his work, I think too. They’re more than just movies, they’re parables.

  4. Curan

    and his next movie will be the live adaptation of an anime called Avatar…

    ..but my favorite movie by him is none other than Stuart Little…although didn’t direct it but he wrote it,.hehehehe

  5. Stephen @ Rebelling Against Indifference

    Yeah, here’s what he said about his next project in this interview: ‘My next movie is called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” for Paramount. It’s a fantasy, inspired by a Japanese animated series, and has a lot of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.’

    The Village is my favorite movie of his as well, with Unbreakable coming in second. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to see this one.

  6. Amy

    Wow! I’ve found my people! The Village is also my favorite, but I have always felt like I was the only one who liked it.

    I didn’t think this movie was as bad as this review, but it also isn’t anywhere close to the first four (well first four after wide awake and that Indian one that is impossible to find)

    I was a bit horrified by the cheesiness of it all at first until I read it was supposed to be like a 50s horror film, and I guess that explains it.

  7. linda

    nd his next movie will be the live adaptation of an anime called Avatar…
    If he did that —how coool would that be…you need to watch the series, it is beautifully and wonderfully done…

  8. David

    i think even more memorable than the hand-grabbing scene with the appropo music, for me, is the Hitchcockian stabbing scene, sans music, as you look into Joaquin Phoenix’s face and then pan down to his torso…

    but there is certainly more emotional and plot-related weight to the hand-grabbing scene.

    i just wanted everyone to picture what was in my brain as we talked about the Village 🙂

  9. whipple

    I’m with Jason about Lady in the Water. But as cinema in the realm of Signs and The Village, I think it wasn’t nearly as believable as the other two, especially at the end. As a kid’s story though, I was glad he devoted a portion of his career solely to a story he told to his kids (somebody else we know is in the middle of something like that, I think).

    That said, I was really excited about this movie. It was breaking in on my list of summer must-sees, which is still quite short. But you guys have put the bug in my ear. I think I’ll go rent Unbreakable instead. When I saw it, I didn’t pay near enough attention the first time. I’ll give it another swing.

  10. thin mint

    I read a (hostile) review of the Happening elsewhere on the net that read it as a covert defense of intelligent design. Did any of you guys see it that way at all?

  11. Matt

    Avatar the Last Airbender is an excellent show, but I’m leery as to how he’ll translate it on screen and live action. Forbidden Kingdom, maybe?

  12. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I had to see it sooner or later. Later turned out to be last night. I really wanted to like it. When I can do so with integrity, I kind of enjoy taking a contrary position. Had I loved this movie, it would have been fun to dialogue with the rest of you. Unfortunately, I have to agree with most of the negative comments.

    I did try to approach the movie with an open mind. I really did. And for awhile, I was hooked. For maybe about ten minutes.

    The thing is, it wasn’t all bad. M. Night Shamalama-ding-dong obviously has skills and I thought there were some good moments, but he’s apparently sorely misguided. Had the acting performances been better, the impending doom and suspense may have been sustained. The wind blowing across the land, the music, the off-screen tension would have been much more effective had the actors been believable.

    There was no chemistry between Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Zero. Zilch. Nada. For that matter, there was almost no chemistry between Wahlberg and John Leguizamo.

    With a 60 million budget, the best thing that one can say about this film is that it is 10 million away from breaking even. With DVD sales alone, that will happen. On the other hand, if M. Night doesn’t find his second wind, we won’t be able to say that about his next effort. While we nerdish folk will probably keep following his work, with another flopola, the masses will stay home.

  13. Ray

    I missed this post when it was originally published. I, too, am a big Shyamalan fan, and was very disappointed with The Happening. And now all the negative reviews of The Last Airbender have me also wondering what happened to him M. Night. I hope he can get back to the creative genius he so clearly displayed before.

    By the way, I seriously thought I was the only one who held The Village in such high esteem. I love that movie and never get tired of watching it. Its good to see others who appreciate that film as well. That said, Signs is still my favorite of his movies (and is on the short list of my favorite movies period).

  14. Lynx

    Last Airbender’s RottenTomatoes.com current rating: 8% fresh, average score 2.9/10 OUCH!

    I like Shyamalan, but I think I’ll forgo an $11 theater seat and just put it in my Netflix queue…like, towards the bottom.

  15. JJ

    For me Signs is my favorite. As far as The Village, I remember walking out of the theater furious. But I think I can tend to have a certain expectation for what a movie is going to be about (thanks to the trailers) and I expected a monster movie. When it turned out not to be about that, I was disappointed. That being said, now that I know that it’s primarily a love story, I enjoy it immensely. It is only second (or third) after Signs and Unbreakable because I loved them from the moment I saw them. The Village I had to warm up to.

    I didn’t waste my time with The Happening and I won’t be with The Last Airbender. I hear M. Night is shopping a movie with Bruce Willis. I’m slightly hopeful for that one. Bruce has made a few stinkers, but his track record with M. Night is 2 for 2. Hopefully he can inspire the director and get him back on track.

  16. Chad Ethridge

    Man his first four movies are still incredible! I have this wistful hope that one day he will return with a brilliant film, but I am growing less confident with each successive bad movie. Perhaps collaborating, as you suggested Pete, would be good move for Shyamalan.

    The Village is one of my favorites and has some brilliant acting by William Hurt, but the scene that I find the most powerful is from The Sixth Sense. When Cole says to his mother “I’m ready to communicate with you now” the doors open for a stellar performance by Toni Collette as she wrestles with the grief of her deceased mother. It blows me away every time I see it.

  17. Jesse D

    M. Night probably needs to disappear for about twenty years before trying to make another movie. His sharp decline seems to tell me that he let his own “talent” take center stage over story, and the last three films are the evidence.

  18. David Buckham

    I still plan on seeing Avatar because I loved the cartoon and so does my family. I realize that the movie, according to many…if not most, is a lousy recreation of the cartoon. I’m okay with it.

    Best I can figure Shyamalan has made 2 or 3 movies (I enjoyed the story behind Lady in the Water) that missed the mark and 4 that were great. I haven’t seen The Happening yet, although I nabbed it on DVR a few months ago so I am sure I will watch it at some point.

    As for future Shyamalan movies. Bring back Bruce Willis (deliberate approach…almost as a man of wisdom) and Joaquin Phoenix (quirky but believable style). Both of those men and their performances really made their Shyamalan movies work.

    At least that is my opinion.

    all about Christ,
    David Buckham

  19. Vonnie

    I really enjoyed The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable but I resisted seeing The Village to start with as I expected it to be a horror of some form. However having seen it I now class it as one of my favourites and will happily watch it again and again. Therefore it is nice to find others that also enjoy it. Most I know that have seen it either didn’t enjoy it or really didn’t understand it…
    While I have to agree with others on the hand out the door scene being incredible I have to admit that my favourite would probably be the conversation they have a little later on the porch (but maybe thats the hopeless romantic in me??….)
    I didn’t mind Lady in the Water and haven’t yet seen Signs so can’t comment on that.
    I watched The Happening for the first time only recently and very nearly didn’t even watch all of it. It has to be one of the worst movies I have seen in some time.
    As for The Last Airbender, I’ll reserve judgement on that as it doesn’t open over here (New Zealand) until September…
    And whether his next movie is watchable or not, well… we can but hope.

  20. Thomas McKenzie

    First of all: some of you still want to see the Last Airbender? Do you not watch the One Minute Review, your source of all movie information? For the love of your time, your money, and your sense of well being avoid this piece of trash.

    That said, what happened to M Night? Three words: Lack Of Accountability. Dude is an “artist.” This means that he demands that the studio give him total creative control, plenty of money, and then let him go. And, usually, he turns a profit, which is all they care about. Now, I’m all for artists having creative control, but this guy has become a self-important hack.

    The only way to stop M Night: DON”T SEE HIS MOVIES. At least in the theater. If people don’t see this wretched AirSucker movie, then perhaps the studio will get the message. What M Night needs is some heartless, slick, low brow Hollywood producers to reign him in. Enjoy that sentence, I will likely never say it again about any other artist.

    Thomas

  21. JJ

    Thomas: We might be in luck. The AirSucker movie still has $40 million to go to break even. And with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Inception coming out this week, hopefully it never will and M. Night might finally get reigned in from making another crapfest.

  22. Chris Whitler

    “Signs” is the most emotional impact for me. I could watch it again and again. “The Sixth Sense” is the first film in a long time that “got me” in that way. “Unbreakable” I love. Loved “The Village”. I saw “Lady in the Water” twice in one day because I just needed to figure out if I liked it…I did…I just like Mr. Heep…his prayer for Story.

    “I enjoyed seeing “The Happening”, it wasn’t my favorite. It’s “The Birds”…Shyamalan actually said it’s patterned after it. If “The Birds” came out today it would get a bad review for choppy editing, strange characters and a funny ending. My boys bought me “The Birds” and “The Happening” for Father’s Day and if you watch them right after one another, you can see it.

    As for “Airbender”, after the OMR here, my hopes were waaaaaaay down. So, in a way, that kinda helped. My kids and I watch the show and to me, it was pretty faithful…some direct homage shots. We all enjoyed it (didn’t see the 3-D) and the whole row of kids that went with my kids (who all love the show) liked it. It’s not great work but I don’t think it deserves all the anger it’s been getting. I mean “Prince of Persia” got a 37% on the tomatometer…it’s at least that to me. My full thoughts on airbender are over at my blog if you care (you can click on my name up there)

    Shyamalan is going to be collaborating here pretty soon with “The Night Chronicles”, a series of supernatural thrillers from new directors running with and writing Shyamalan ideas. Looks promising. The first is kinda back to the classic Shyamalan style, a small story told in a small way with big consequences…strangers stuck in an elevator and one of them is the devil. We’ll see.

    And Mr. McKenzie, we do like your reviews…you actually are our one stop shop for recommendations…but we disobeyed and (respectfully) disagreed with your review of Airbender. My kids and I love watching OMR together : ) We’ll see “Despicable Me” next and you have me excited for “Inception” (better than “Memento”?!)

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