Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan is an Indian-born director famed for his contemporary supernatural movies which often culminate in a twist ending. Making his début with Praying With Fire while at university in New York (it screened in one theatre for one week), Shyamalan went on to direct Julia Stiles in 1995’s Wide Awake, although the film itself wasn’t actually released until 1998. True success didn’t come, however, until the release of The Sixth Sense, for which the director earnt six Academy Award nominations and four BAFTA nominations. Since then, Shyamalan has gone on to write and direct Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady In The Water, The Happening and – most recently – The Last Airbender.
While Shyamalan’s career started out strong however (there are few who would question the majesty of The Sixth Sense), the director soon fell from grace as his proclivity for a final twist in the narrative became increasingly hackneyed. Dealing first with ghosts, and subsequently with superheroes, aliens, bogeymen and water nymphs, Shyamalan finally took a step too far with 2008’s The Happening – a film in which murderous plants imbue the planet’s populace with suicidal tendencies. In an attempt to distance himself from supernatural thrillers, the director chose for his next film to adapt a long-running Nickelodeon cartoon series, the anime-esque Avatar: The Last Airbender. Rather than prove his directorial diversity, however, The Last Airbender only fanned the flames of his vogue chastisement. Surely, there could no longer be any defence for M. Night Shyamalan?
Except, I have witnessed no such diminishing returns. In fact, I have found something to admire in each and every one of Shyamalan’s works since the Sixth Sense (I have yet to see Wide Awake and was sadly not in Woodstock, Illinois for the week of his débuts release), only struggling with The Happening when required to localise redeeming features. As the Elephant Ear Plant in the room, then, perhaps we should get the latter out of the way first. Spoilers abound.
The Happening focuses on Elliot Moore, an unassuming high school science teacher from Philidelphia who is struggling to connect with his estranged wife (Zooey Deschannel). When mysterious waves of mass suicide strike the North East of the United States – a phenomenon which is quickly (and wrongly) attributed to those pesky terrorists – Elliot and Alma decide to travel to Harrisburg by train to escape the city. Stranded in a small town en route when their train loses all radio signal, it is learnt from a local nursery owner that it is not terrorists, but plants, that are responsible for the epidemic, able as they are to defend themselves through the release of chemical toxins. Scared that the plants are targeting large groups, and having inherited a young girl from an earlier casualty, Elliot, Alma and Jess are soon left alone, having taken shelter in an isolated house, despite the protests of the eccentric owner. When she too falls victim to the trees, the trio huddle together in fear of the…nothing. Nothing happens. They survive, for no reason, and the plants go into submission until a final scene teases a resurgence in Paris.
While the synopsis may elicit more laughter than it does food for thought – and presumably the only reason Wahlberg and co. are actually spared is that they are understandably mistaken for wooden likenesses themselves – The Happening isn’t entirely devoid of artistic merit. Though you may scoff at the premise and lampoon the seriousness with which it is handled, the film nevertheless boasts one of the eeriest opening scenes to grace cinemas in the year of its release. As New York falls victim to a deadly musical statues flashmob and construction workers plummet from their scaffolding like lifeless rag dolls, the director builds up a fleeting sense of dread that was sadly mismarketed to audiences as a straight-faced horror/thriller. While you might not buy into the outlandish premise, there’s no faulting Shyamalan’s often stunning direction, even if his talents as a writer fare less well.
After The Happening it is Shyamalan’s most recent offering that comes under the most criticism. Adapted from a Saturday morning cartoon, critics were outraged to find that watching The Last Airbender felt like watching a Saturday morning cartoon. Like The Phantom Menace before it, the adult world was once again angered to find themselves not the respective director’s target audience. While I agree that the film has its flaws – hammy acting and haphazard plotting chief among them – I find it difficult to write it off completely when there’s so much to enjoy. Impressive special effects, a suitably epic feel and a scattering of beautifully orchestrated fight scenes retain some semblance of momentum as our archetypal heroes do their best to under-act one another. Had I been within the age constraints of the film’s target audience, however, I know I would have loved it. Job done.
But what of the rest of his output, is it really just to dismiss the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water because of two poorly received misfires? The director’s trademark unhurried approach to pacing has gifted each of his earlier releases with the timeless whimsy of a fable or fairy story that lends them a dignity and charm rarely seen during blockbuster season. This man is responsible for Bruce Willis’ only two noteworthy performances of the last 12 years; can be credited with a scattering of the best cinematic twists of all time; and discovering Abigail Breslin. Prolific isn’t even the word.
It is Signs, however, that best encapsulates the directors many talents – to me, at least. Although I loved the many surprises of The Village, and I was utterly enchanted by The Lady in the Water, it is Shyamalan’s alien invasion movie that I revisit most often. In pitting Mel Gibson’s former preacher against a group of crop circling extra terrestrials, M. Night Shyamalan has weaved a bitter-sweet crisis of faith with the thrills and spills of a popcorn-happy alien colonisation. Beautiful, tense and surprisingly touching, Signs – like the majority of Shyamalan’s other works – is a winning alchemy of different influences and unifying themes.
Now one movie into his planned The Night Chronicles trilogy – three movies which started with last year’s Devil to be produced by Shyamalan – it will be interesting to see what the director does next. Whether he returns to Unbreakable for the rumoured sequel, directs the next instalment in his Airbender trilogy or writes and directs something entirely new, you can bet that I’ll be there, happy to listen to anythig this tremendous director has left to say.
It is time to hand the floor over to you. What is your opinion of M. Night Shyamalan? Movie mastermind or master of mediocrity? With a director who polarises opinion as completely as Shyamalan, this is undoubtedly a debate which could rage on for a long time to come.