In Shyamalan we find an example of the tragedy which can befall those who meet with early and meteoric success. After The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan began to confuse his artistic and commercial accomplishments with profound cultural importance. This misjudgement manifested most prominently in Lady in the Water, where Shyamalan cast himself as a visionary writer whose work changes the world. Even after the critical and commercial rebuke which followed, Shyamalan minimized only his physical presence in future work, not his inflated sense of importance.
In what at first appeared to be a return to form, Shyamalan’s 2008 The Happening turned out profound only in its silliness. Beginning with an enticing premise, an outbreak of unexplained suicides, the film soon lost all capacity to suspend disbelief when its culprit was revealed to be Earth’s vegetation, reeking pheromonal vengeance on mankind for climate change. The same meme was present to a lesser extent in this year’s After Earth, where Will Smith’s emotionless patriarch warns his son that “everything on this planet [Earth] has evolved to kill humans.” You know, because we’re such a threat.
Shyamalan harbors legitimate talent. Channeling it in the right direction will require him to abandon his compulsion toward profundity. The twist ending which worked so well in The Sixth Sense served a narrative purpose which added to the development of the characters, the telling of the story, and the experience of the moviegoer. Since then, Shyamalan’s intent seems to be less about telling a story and more about proving that he is smarter than the audience. He pursues that point through the now cliché twist ending or, more recently, preaching a holier-than-thou environmental narrative. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that few moviegoers are seeking a sermon.
The key to Shyamalan’s future success is no more profound than his self-indulgent preaching. He needs to focus on character development and storytelling, and leave the profundity for those few earned moments when it makes narrative sense.