There are many directors who lose their way at some point during the career. Even directors known for creating all-time classics eventually seem to lose their way. Yet there’s something interesting about M. Night Shyamalan and his journey through Hollywood. On one hand, he could never live up to the hype built around him. There are few directors in the history of film to rise as quickly as Shyamalan rose. In the process, he became a hit factory and a critically acclaimed director. Yet his drop off might be one of the most absurd falls from grace. Yet the return of M. Night Shyamalan is based on nostalgia and love for his work. While “Split” may have backdoored its connections to “Unbreakable,” it is that connection that bodes well for Shyamalan’s future as a filmmaker.
A Rising Star
There are a lot of things we forget about what Shyamalan accomplished as an auteur. His meteoric rise gave a person of color the opportunity to direct films that were not immediately segmented by their race. This easily could have happened to Shyamalan, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, Shyamalan made blockbuster features for mass audiences in a time when people of color could not direct these films. His Oscar nomination for “The Sixth Sense” was only the 2nd for a person of color in the 1990s, and the first since John Singleton in 1991. He also did while directing a horror film, a feat that would not be replicated until Jordan Peele did so in 2017.
At the same time, he commanded some of the very best actors in Hollywood. From 1999 to 2004, he works with Mel Gibson at the peak of his powers, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis twice, and newly crowned Oscar-winner Adrian Brody. He also identified that Joaquin Phoenix could be a generational talent, putting him front and center in two of his films. “The Village” features a lot of talent, including a great performance from Bryce Dallas Howard. The side characters in that film are played by quality actors, including Jesse Eisenberg, Judy Greer, & Michael Pitt. His actresses, including Howard, Toni Collette, Robin Wright, and Cherry Jones delivered excellent performances across the board. He has an eye for talent, and actors flocked to him during his rise.
There is no question what represents the peak of Shyamalan, and the five-year run that earned him fame and infamy. The run was kicked off by his third film, “The Sixth Sense,” which went on to receive six Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The twist of the film became the talk of pop culture for more than a decade. However, the beauty of that film became a cross to bear for Shyamalan.
“Signs” plays off of B-movies about aliens, as well as plays into the Spielberg comparisons that haunted his early career. “Signs” works as a rumination on Catholicism and faith. It shows a family splintered by tragedy. Yet there’s no twist, and because of that, it actually improves in quality.
“The Village” suffers the most from the twist at the end and Adrien Brody‘s performance. Despite Brody and a poorly written script, there are a lot of positives about “The Village” that remain overlooked. The actual design of the town, the costumes, the cinematography, and the chemistry between Phoenix and Howard elevates the script. As a response to 9/11 and the war on terror, it also works as a commentary on the lengths we go to avoid violence in our lives. It’s not the best film of the year, but it may secretly be one of the best of 2004.
“Unbreakable” Sets the Stage
However, the often forgotten “Unbreakable” occurred right in the middle of his run. In 2000, Shyamalan proved he was far ahead of the curve. In its most basic interpretation, “Unbreakable” was a love letter to comic books. Coming off of the Joel Schumaker “Batman” films, there was little reason to shout this from the rooftops. “X-Men” would premiere just months before “Unbreakable,” while “Spider-Man” was still three years away.
What makes “Unbreakable” unique, however, is the focus on what it means to be a superhero. At the time, the genre didn’t really put that emphasis on the filmmaking. Before Christopher Nolan made grounded/gritty superheroes a boring trend in the genre, Shyamalan used the concept to differentiate himself from the campy films that surrounded him. Shyamalan used the approach to tell a gripping emotional story about a family struggling to survive and the lengths we go to find our place in the world. It is a story about imperfections and the things that make us human. Even the way DP Eduardo Serra shoots the film feels like a comic book, especially when the film chooses to use color late in the film. Long takes become a regular trick used in the film, and there’s a fair argument to be had that this might be his most intensively blocking film.
Let’s be clear, there are almost no real examples of creating superhero franchises from whole cloth in the modern cinema landscape. The other one that comes to mind is “The Incredibles,” itself a rumination on family and losing your place in the world. Yet Shyamalan is more focused on the villainy of his characters, and that allowed “Split” to become something special.
The Fall of Shyamalan
However, Shyamalan’s fall came quickly. While his 1999 to 2004 run included intricate visual storytelling, Shyamalan all but dropped that in subsequent films. Instead, he seemed to believe that the storytelling was what people loved about his movies. He was wrong. “Lady in the Water” insisted that his storytelling could change the world. That’s a heavy burden to put on a movie, which only invites more criticism when you cast yourself as the storyteller destined to save humanity. The entire cast of “The Happening” had no idea what they were doing, and the insistence that he was trying to make a B-movie feels like it was placed on the film to explain that issue.
His blockbuster run of “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth” only intensified the issues. Both are among the very worst movies of the year because he seemed to be on autopilot. It seemed like his career was over. His work became a punchline, and he all but disappeared from the public consciousness. He had gotten away from everything that made him special as a director. It seemed unlikely he’d recover.
The Return of M. Night Shyamalan?
After being humbled on the biggest stage possible, Shyamalan to be unlikely to recover. He made a bit of a comeback with “The Visit,” which quickly became a hit. Working with Blumhouse, he earned $65 million on a $5 million budget. It was a good bounce back and attracted some stars to join his next film.
“Split” drew in James McAvoy (the last minute replacement for Joaquin Phoenix), Anya Taylor Joy, and Hayley Lu Richardson. He also shoots the hell out of the movie, with DP Mike Gioulakis delivering most of the best shots in a Shyamalan movie in the past decade. The world is chilling in ways that surprise, and the physicality of McAvoy becomes consuming. Combined with unique performances from his cast, it was clear Shyamalan had clicked back into being the visual storyteller that turned many onto his potential.
However, a post-credit scene that crystalizes the movie as one of Shymalan’s very best films. In the post-credit, it quickly becomes apparent the story is tied to “Unbreakable” when Willis shows up in a diner. While McAvoy’s character could be considered offensive and weird, reframing the character as a villain from a comic book allows McAvoy to play to the back of the house. Suddenly, the success of “Split” gives Shyamalan Hollywood’s most desired asset in 2019: a cinematic universe. While it took 16 years to get the “Unbreakable” sequel, his backdoor cover on the promise opened up expectations. Instantly, the return of Shyamalan to the pop culture world was completed.
What Does “Glass” Mean For Shyamalan’s Future
With “Glass” now in theaters, it is clear that Shyamalan has created something that will ensure his return is not limited to a single film. “Glass” only cost $20 million to make, and the marketing push might even exceed the budget of the film. That seems to be fine with Blumhouse and Universal, who seem to be projecting the film takes in at least $50 million domestic despite some weak reviews.
That does not necessarily mean that Shyamalan will be bulletproof, but his partnership with Blumhouse bodes well for his future. It becomes easier to take swings your movies drop in cost, and Blumhouse has certainly figured that formula out. His superhero universe also gives the studio a non-horror property of note that can continue to grow with time. Ultimately, Shyamalan struck gold with “Unbreakable,” but no one realized how important that would be for his comeback until today. Shyamalan may finally embrace his genre roots in a positive direction, and with Jason Blum in his corner, hopefully, he will continue to embrace his genre roots in the future.