Filmmaking is a feat of administration as much as a technical or artistic craft. A good idea goes nowhere without the wherewithal to bring all the logistical pieces together. The difference between a good film and a mediocre one often comes down to how its production is managed, regardless of the talent involved. Hence, so many great writers, directors, actors, and other craftsmen find themselves attached to bombs. All the pieces have to mesh at once and in sync.
It has been some time since things have meshed for M. Night Shyamalan. The director who made his name with the 1999 breakout hit The Sixth Sense has in the years following suffered a steady and cringe-inducing decline reflected in both critical and commercial disappointment.
Recall that the teaser trailer for Shyamalan’s 2006 Lady in the Water rested heavily upon his involvement as a selling point. His name was offered as a credential, as assurance that the project would be worth seeing.
Up to that point, his name still carried weight. Following The Sixth Sense, he met with lesser success – but success nonetheless – with the comic book thriller Unbreakable, the esoteric alien-invasion tale Signs, and the brain-bending historical horror The Village.
Despite featuring the lovely and supremely talented Bryce Dallas Howard, Lady in the Water stood out as a turning point for the worse, leaving moviegoers confused at best and otherwise bored. It opened third in the box office and was widely derided as self-indulgent nonsense.
Seven years hence, Shyamalan’s name went wholly unmentioned in promotional material for his recent After Earth, starring Will Smith and son Jaden. Alas, hiding Shyamalan’s involvement could not ward off his curse. Sharing Lady in the Water’s distinction of a third-place box office open, After Earth earned less during its first weekend than the magician caper Now You See Me.
This fall, Shyamalan comes to the small screen, producing and directing a miniseries for FOX staring Matt Dillon and Melissa Leo. Wayward Pines is based upon a book series by the same name, described as a “weird mystery story” evoking comparisons to the cult classic Twin Peaks. Such material may be, as Shyamalan confesses in an interview with IGN, right up his alley. The question emerges: will the final product be up ours?
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.