What Happened to M. Night Shyamalan?

NightHas any recent director begun with greater promise or had a worse trajectory of achievement?


1. A lot of artists has the same kind of trajectory.

2. This film maker is mocked:

Matt - I think it's more likely that the limit of the score is just approaching zero.

The Village is actually very underrated and Lady in the Water is better than people give it credit for.

I think he's just interested in making a kind of movie that not everybody wants to see.

The paradox of twist:

You can't truly and pleasantly surprise people with a clever twist when they're *expecting* it, anticipating it, and trying to guess it during the whole movie and hence ultra-sensitive to your cute little hints. They will be much more disappointed than otherwise if the twist turns out to be anything less than genuinely brilliant and awesome.

Shylamalan has typecast himself as a director/writer, and has therefore made his job fulfilling his self-created niche profoundly difficult.

So, it would make sense that you start out with a few greats, start to experience diminishing returns, and then just give up in frustration and despair with trying to please everyone.

Oliver Stone?

Also would box office totals be a better indicator than critic ratings?

First I think Airbender is sui generes. Making a $200M movie is an entirely different skill-set from directing a $40M movie. Even great directors can fail to keep it all together on such big projects with so many moving parts and competing interest groups. See for example Ang Lee in Hulk, where he has sense talked about how out of his depth we was on such a big project.

The rest of the decline can probably be chalked up to an unfortunate combination of two things.

1) People's outrageous expectations. 6th Sense was a universal sensation in a way that just can't be reliably repeated, but people expected the same visceral thrill from each of his movies. To some extent its his fault too for trying to cater to that expectation, but it still isn't reasonable for people to judge each movie as a failure if it didn't deliver the joy and surprise that the first viewing of 6th Sense delivered.

2) Creative ambition. There are plenty of directors that churn out mediocre crap, but with all of M Nights movies he has at least sought to do something interesting and unusual. I think that can give you a higher variance in quality. Signs was much better than it has been given credit for, and if you are pushing the envelope you can end up making a couple bad or middeling movies in a row. And unfortunately for M Night because of the sky high expectations a middeling movie has been judged an utter flop.

Now things have gotten to a point where the mockery becomes self reinforcing, which is too bad because tactically he is really good at creating suspense. If he weren't saddled with the expectations he could probably make good, if not great, small thrillers.

The low rating of The Last Airbender was predictable: movie adaptations of series usually suck, because there is too much storyline to cram into too little time. The people most likely to express an opinion are fans of the series, who are probably going to be hostile to any change. (On the other hand, going the other way is usually an improvement, because the longer format of a series gives more time for character and plot development: Highlander, Buffy, and Stargate were all better as series, for example.)

The exceptions are when the series had very little continuing storyline in the first place and then the movie can just be one long episode (eg Charlie's Angels, Mission Impossible) or when the movie assumes knowledge of the series story and characters and doesn't try to reintroduce and summarize everything (X-Files, Serenity, Star Trek movies).

Aside from that, Shyamalan had one good idea, his next two movies were overrated because of the glamor of his one good idea, and after that he was recognized as mediocre. Compare Orson Scott Card.

i'm pretty sure even M. Night Shyamalan wouldn't mind if we left Wide Awake off of that chart.

Based on the interviews I've read, it seems obvious to me that he lacks humility and is incapable of self-criticism, which limits his growth as an artist.

And keep in mind that The Happening is significantly overscored on that chart. Several reviewers thought it fit in nicely with global warming mythology and felt compelled to declare it "important." Ebert gave it a big thumbs up, unsurprisingly, as he is easily manipulated by such things. But The Happening is truly one of the very, very worst films ever made.

I did not think Shymalan could outdo himself for badness, but by most accounts, he has.

George Lucas?

I guess I have strange tastes, because I really liked the Airbender movie. I'm just sad no one else seems to, which means we're unlikely to see the next installment when it was obviously intended to be the first of a four movie cycle.

I think that using a linear fit for the graph is a mistake. I'm just eyeballing it, of course, but it looks more like a power rule curve to me.

For those interested, here are the box office receipts. i.e., the market voting as an economist should say.


Pretty easy to see why studios keep throwing money at him. His movies are extremely profitable (including lady in the water and the happening, which were made rather cheaply all things considered).

Mean reversion?

This is tangential, but it looks like the graph was made in Stata. Is this graph based on a a copy of a database of rotten tomatoes ratings and information for lots of movies? If so, I'd be interested in knowing how you got the database and whether such a database is available. I know that IMDB makes some of their stuff available in "raw form" but I have found it difficult to export it to Excel or Stata.

yeah lets looks at a graph of his box office receipts

I actually liked The Happening, and thought The Village was tolerable.

Last Airbender is an offense to god. Being a fan of series just made the pain of watching it that much worse.

Peter Bogdonavich- After The Last Picture Show he had What's Up Doc and Paper Moon and Daisy Miller but very little after that.
Wiliam Friedkin- The French Connection and The Exorcist.

I understand where you're going, Hopefully Anon., and I agree that I'd sooner consider going to an M. Night film than a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer movie any day of the week. However, it's the potential for genius and the continually falling far, far short of that mark that has made MNS so frustrating for many. He's clearly an intelligent, creative guy who has a very intended, focused objective. But like George Lucas, he desperately needs a partner or team who could be bold enough to give him course corrections on these trainwrecks before they occur.

I'll be interesting to see how "Devil" comes out given that it's M. Night's script, but directed by someone else. However, I sorta suspect this is the inverse of the ideal solution - I think there'd be more success (or more audience satisfaction) in M. Night directing another writer's script. I've always thought that MNS's visual sensibilities & cinematic skills far outweigh his writing abilities.

George Lucas, by the way, is a prime example of what an unchecked director with limitless tools & funds can do. There's a man who seriously needs some humility and to realize that he's not an especially competent writer.

And Spielberg ain't too far off. Really, what's the last truly great movie he made? Nothing since "Saving Private Ryan." Given the way that he & Lucas raped a cultural icon and left his bleeding carcass strewn beside the road with the last (hopefully) Indiana Jones installation, Spielberg's Director's Guild card should be revoked! This man desperately needs some introspection.

The emerging trend seems to be that directors make much better movies when finances are lean and studios don't just give them carte blanche. I sure hope Christopher Nolan doesn't fall prey to this...

It seems to me that box office numbers are more meaningful if the distribution is available. I saw TLA on opening night, first screening, after having carefully avoided reviews because I liked the trailer so much. I don't think anyone here has condemned the movie strongly enough for how bad it was. I suspect that any movie with good marketing would have great numbers in the first few days, and the numbers a week or two after the release reflect more accurately its real quality. The people seeing the film two weeks in are doing so with the benefit of recommendations from the first wave.

"Plausible coherence (his big weakness post-Unbreakable) isn't everything..."

No its not, but it is necissary for a film to be good. If the world created doesn't make any sense to a viewer, then it can't have any meaning outside of a visual or dramatic spectacle.

IMO, MNS is a very bad writer, its just taken the world while to realize that. He doesn't seem to be that bad as a director. Has he done anything with someone else's script?

I think I'm permanently dumber for having watched Signs...

Having not seen Last Airbender, I'll excuse everything with the exception of Lady in Water. Just awful.

I concur with Jacob F. I'd love to know if stata/csv data exists. Though, given it's so few observations, it wouldn't be too tough to quickly ed.

Oh, good heavens. Inception was clever, dramatic, and emotionally wrenching. (Can't go into that last, due to spoilers, but the gradual reveal of Dom's guilty secret was very effective, for anyone with a heart.)

WTF do people want from a movie?

Shyamalan is going to cross genres, bring his hip, ecological sensibilies to the world of gay porn. It's gonna
be called The Last Assbender.

Steve Sailer,
I haven't seen Inception yet (love the glimpses of the trailers that I've been trying to avoid until I see the actual film) but of the body of works I've seen, I agree Nolan is superior to Shyamalan. But I think there's room for some directors less talented in Nolan, and I think Shyamalan clears the threshhold. "The likes of Nolan" -that's a small circle of talent.
There may also be a difference between talent and integrity/fearlessness. It's hard to argue that Shyamalan is as talented as Alex Proyas or the Wachowski brothers, but he made a bunch of movies without making I, Robot or Matrix 3. Yes, the writer/direct of Dark City directed I, Robot. Tarantino touches Travolta and makes gold. Proyas touched Will Smith and became tin. I'll take The Happening over I, Robot any day -including, in fact especially, the ending.

I had the "ending" in Sixth Sense figured out in under 15 minutes. I blame the writer.

Good film, nonetheless.

Signs was actually a better film on many different levels.

As a director he has sucked since Signs. Period. End of discussion. Deal with it.

oh. Also nobody has used the word pretentious yet.

That's an essential word if you want to have a for reals discussion of M and his work.


I think the Memento analogy is apt. That was a similarly viral hit to 6th Sense. I agree with you on the awesomeness of Christopher Nolan and that M Night isn't in the same league. My point is more that M Night is a mediocre director who people people seem to be underrating because they are expecting greatness. Had Nolan followed Memento up with Prestige (a good movie, but not universally acclaimed), then the middling Superman, followed by two consecutive flops, people might regard him as they now regard M Night.

If anyone's interested, my 3 Shyamalan movie reviews:




Debt Management
This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and
needs to be appreciated by everyone.

And then there's the "brilliant" curse. Tell someone they are brilliant enough and they begin to believe it. And then they suck.

Hey Scoop, gotta find fault a bit with your logic--Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, Chariots of Fire, and Ghandi were brilliant films and they do hold up today, because STORY matters. These were gut-wrenching, old-school, life-affirming films. "Lady in the Water"...uhhh...not so much. Shyamalan's films however, won't hold up, except for Wide Awake, 6th Sense, and Signs.
"I'll be interesting to see how "Devil" comes out given that it's M. Night's script, but directed by someone else. However, I sorta suspect this is the inverse of the ideal solution - I think there'd be more success (or more audience satisfaction) in M. Night directing another writer's script. I've always thought that MNS's visual sensibilities & cinematic skills far outweigh his writing abilities."
Rob O., I think you nailed it.

I loved Signs and Sixth Sense. The Village wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great. I did not like Lady in the Water, but I found The Happening to be pretty good. I guess it all comes down to what each of us like. Great movies stand the test of time - Sixth Sense and Signs will do that. The others just don't get there, but they aren't terrible. MNS has a lot of good ideas, but it looks like as time has gone on, he has not been able to bring them to the screen in the right way. A good idea needs a great depiction on the big screen. Time will tell.

Or how about the beginning of Alex Cox's career:

1984: Repo Man
1986: Sid and Nancy

And then ...

Just to set the record straight, I'll admit The Happening wasn't one of my best, but in my defense, I had a severe cold when I made it...and my original ending for The Last Airbender (where the main character is actually dead but just doesn't know it) was nixed by the suits at the studio.

Agree about "The Happening" - more holes in that plot than in a block of Swiss cheese.
Signs was OK for a monsters-from-outer-space movie, but the fact that the aliens were vulnerable to water is ridiculous. I can accept a biochemistry that is not dependent on H2O as a conjecture, but what were the fool things then doing hanging out on a watery world chowing down on creatures which are 70% water?

I think this is just a huge ploy. He's going to suck more and more til 10 years he makes a decent movie. WHAT A TWIST!

not sure if this has been posted here yet. here he is handling a question that asks what this blog posts does, sort of, and he does a decent job of defending himself.


"Oh, good heavens. Inception was clever, dramatic, and emotionally wrenching. (Can't go into that last, due to spoilers, but the gradual reveal of Dom's guilty secret was very effective, for anyone with a heart.)"

"WTF do people want from a movie?"

I want it to be more like Memento.

Keep in mind, Alex asked "what happened?" The question is not personal, the question is "why?"

I enjoyed "The Last Airbender," but it did have problems in storytelling that could have fixed had he not had so much control.

If everything were the same about the movie but it was marketed and billed as being directed by, say, Michael Bay, it would not have been trashed the way it was. The problems still would have kept it below 50% on RT, but around the 30's or 40's.

Don't forget M Night also wrote the "Stuart Little" movie. He changed Stuart from being a mouse that came out of Mrs. Little's vagina into a talking mouse who was adopted. Which was an excellent move. Fortunately the Stuart Little fandom didn't go screaming about that.

How about the de-jectory of Kevin Costner?

The director of Dancing with Wolves?
Woody Allen in the USA
David Lynch

Rating Shyamalan above the Coen Brothers is the most sarcastic comment I've read today. It probably wasn't sarcastic, but to stop myself from having a stroke I'm going to pretend it was.

I do agree that Unbreakable was better than The Sixth Sense. In my opinion, these are the only two movies that didn't totally fail. It's disappointing to see him go down such a bad path, he showed so much promise with these two.

The most recent movie I've seen from Shyamalan was Lady In The Water, and I was confused as to why critics had only then decided to call him out on shoddy work. I thought Signs was no better than The Village or Lady In The Water.

The detractors are right to say that he had one good idea and squeezed 2 or 3 movies out of it. The idea that we can't criticize art because we haven't made it is absurd - I can't play professional football as well as the Detroit Lions, but I don't need experience to know that they are awful.

I think that the Coen Brothers have made quite a few films that are artistic without people noticing. Remember all of those people complaining at the end of No Country For Old Men? Yeah, those people didn't notice the artistry.

Unlike other directors who have made one good film before bombing (Michael Cimino), the studios just kep giving Shyamalan more chances. We remember The Deer Hunter, but not Cimino. If the studios would have cut Shyamalan off years ago we would remember The Sixth Sense and forget his name, but now they have turned him into a joke.

I usually don't award points for effort. I won't give Shyamalan more chances because some of his films have shown any type of ambition. Popcorn action directors might not shoot to show anything in their movies more than a gas can exploding, but at least those movies sometimes turn out to be alright.

Hitchcock didn't knock it out of the park every time, but he sure as hell hit more homers than Shyamalan, and those homers were movies like Psycho or Vertigo or North By Northwest, all of which make anything Shyamalan has ever made look pitiful.

He used to be so good!

Perhaps ratings are a function of expectations. I think this was true for George Lucas (something like reference dependence). If Shyamalan or Lucas come out of nowhere with a good movie, it gets great ratings. However, they can't keep coming out of nowhere and ratings are perhaps a function of formed expectations.

Another thought is the second year slump. A writer/director has an above average outcome compared to his expectation and a lot of future projects are green-lit and regress to mean. The upward trending writer/directors (i.e., those who have a below average first outcome) are probably not green-lit, on the other hand.

Just tell a good story. I don't need to be "tricked" into likeing a movie. Tell a good story, beginning, middle, and, end.

As far as casting, remember many Asians consider themselves not to be minorities and ascribe to wanting to be "whiter" in complexion. It doesn't have to do with being "white" in terms of race as is normally thought in Western culture. But having to do with "class"; not having to work in the sun getting darker. Therefore, the less "color" one has, the more priviledged they appear. Weird, but true. And remember that Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, et al, are all Caucasion whether those of European descent think so. He is trying to appeal to the broadest audience, without including people of color, because he literally is not.

Having not seen Last Airbender, I'll excuse everything with the exception of Lady in Water. Just awful.

I concur with Jacob F. I'd love to know if stata/csv data exists. Though, given it's so few observations, it wouldn't be too tough to quickly ed.

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Reading these comments has sucked the last drops of my faith in humanity out of my dry, dessicated corpse. Snarkiness is the new religion. I will now retreat from humanity, a defeated and lonely homo sapien in a world populated by soulless reptoids.

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