M. Night Shyamalan Films Ranked Part One. (10-6)

by Paul Deeter

Spoilers for almost every M. Night Shyamalan film ahead, including 2021's Old.

Taking the work of a director as prolific as Shyamalan is not easy but also doable with some caveats taken in account. To start this article of I'll mention that I've been with this director for over 20 years now, with strong passion for even some of his most divisive and critically disparaged films. My main issue with Shyamalan is different from the many controversies that go hand in hand with his name and reputation. There's a lot of shameful stereotyping that goes with the director, some focused on the pronunciation of his last name, which has become almost a meme despite its overt racism. I also believe Shyamalan is held under an unfair spotlight for the "twist ending" expectations that don't always end up in his films, and the dip in quality his 2000s films took. It's hard to size up some of his recent work to classics like Unbreakable, but it's unfair to rule them out entirely.

My main complaint actually lies in a specific time, from his step away from the horror genre after the critical and commercial failure of 2008's The Happening. In a strange move for his career, but not unblameable given the circumstances, Shyamalan followed his career with what's considered the worst film of its genre: The Last Airbender, a live-action film adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon series. His involvement was seen positively from an early-production standpoint, and the film would gross a significant amount until the fans started to come clean as the critics reviews got worse and worse. It sits at an almost career-ruining 5% on Rotten Tomatoes, and following The Happening it was enough for the director to take a break for three years. Shyamalan does not look fondly upon the decision to work on The Last Airbender years later, despite the enthusiasm for his involvement led the company to believe the movie would be franchisable for up to three sequels. He would go on to say at...the Ashok C. Sani Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence lecture at NYU's Stern School of Business on April 16, 2019, he revealed that he regretted accepting the directing position on the film, stating "There has always been this inexorable pull to join the group, a constant seduction in the form of whatever you want to tally, in the form of money, or safety, ease, not getting criticized. I did these movies, and I rightfully got crushed, because they rightfully said, 'You don't believe in yourself, you don't believe in your own voice, and you don't believe in your values."

The follow-up to the Nickelodeon cash-grab would not steer the director back into the horror reigns, but instead after three productions with the company Media Rights Capital (where he produced but did not direct Devil) he made After Earth. The film which starred Will and Jaden Smith as father-and-son characters in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure film was another (surprise,surprise) flop. This one also would gross next to nothing and sink his reputation with studios enough to self finance future projects. So let's get those two out of the way, huh?

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: The Last Airbender & After Earth. (2010, 2013.)

Can we skip this part? I mentioned specifically how these two films almost ruined the director entirely, making it difficult to restore his reputation until 2017's Split was met with wide acclaim. Bad enough as these films were, Shyamalan notably said to the effect that his heart wasn't really in it for these two features. At least The Last Airbender attempted to take an alternative approach to the famous Nickelodeon series, but therein lies part of its downfall as well. A live-action reproduction of an anime hit series was a risk, and despite some solid visual effect work, the movie is completely forgettable. Not even bad enough to enjoy. After Earth meanwhile tries to cash in on the relationship of father-and-son Smith duo, to disappointing results. Lack of chemistry aside, Will Smith doesn't look too interested in any of this, and Jaden Smith hasn't exactly weighed in as an aspiring young actor to watch. Luckily Jaden started a pretty strong rap career just years later, Will Smith went on to other features, and After Earth went away from memory altogether. And these two features would be the last of Shyamalan's work outside the horror/thriller genre, for the most part.

And here is Purely Kino's spoiler-heavy ranking of Shyamalan's films.

10. The Happening (2008)

M. Night Shyamalan's worst movie in my opinion, is The Happening. I have no strong feelings on The Last Airbender which is considered an abomination itself, but as a passive Avatar fan (I'm more partial to Legend of Korra) I wasn't betrayed by the director like so many other young fans were. But looking back at 2008, even given Lady in the Water's overall misstep as a horror/fantasy feature, I was team Shyamalan entirely. LitW is not as bad as some of its initial response, but we'll get back to that. It may surprise you to read this about The Happening: it's having a critical come-around. Without diving into the stink, I'll note that multiple reviewers have come back and addressed the film as being misinterpreted too seriously. Shyamalan has backed his opinion on the film in comparison to 1958 B-movie The Blob. And actually a few reputable sources including Craig Line of Den of Geeks supported the film, having said in 2018..."Just about every aspect of The Happening is a defiance of expectation. It uses the tropes of classic disaster/survival B-Movies (Shyamalan clearly knows his classics) but inverts them. The script here is so carefully constructed, so multi-layered and so rhythmic it’s almost poetry. The fact that much of the dialogue was deemed simply ridiculous by audiences saddens me because every word feels so perfectly in place" Not just that, but Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club argued similarly that the film aimed for a B-Movie tone, but instead he argued everyone was in on the joke outside of Wahlberg, who was indeed miscast. Wahlberg denounced the film itself in his own-obscenity filled way as well.

I don't think The Happening is a B-movie, or even that it attempts to be one. The atrocious casting including Zooey Deschanel as Wahlberg's romantic partner is simply unforgivable. The forced moments of humor are a bad habit Shyamalan would carry over into a couple of other films, and the stilted dialogue feels robotic at best. Brief moments of effective violence include John Leguizamo being affected and attempting to slice his wrists emotionlessly in the road. There's a lawnmower death and a particularly gruesome lion mauling scene. It's actually important to note that Shyamalan did have more freedom with the horror on this project because he'd strictly stuck to the PG-13 rating until now. But perhaps that same limitation helped his previous movies focus more on peril and dread than shocking gore like this flick. Hey, it's not a dismal time though. There's a lot of meme-potential reaction images in The Happening and some amazing dialogue deliveries you can find on Youtube. In fact, here's one. Enjoy.

9. Lady in the Water (2006)

This is a really tricky film to rank in my opinion, because there's really a lot going for Lady in the Water both visually and behind-the-scenes as well. Let's start with the good stuff, like that M. Night Shyamalan based this faux-fairy tale film on a bedtime story he told his young kids after becoming a father (aw!) and he even adapted a 72-page children's book of the same name to be released on the same day. The soundtrack primarily by James Newton Howard was so inspired it went on to win and be nominated for many more awards, outshining any other quality of the film. And one more great bit: Freddy Rodriguez as a character who only works weights on one buff arm, while the other is super skinny (this gag more than pays off in the final act.) Unfortunately, Shyamalan took a hit financially and critically on this one, he even was nominated as Worst Director at the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards. It really irks me, because this project is so close to home but also so far from being good. Its riddled with flaws and lackluster characters, but it wouldn't go down as his worst film. And after his previous release, me and my family were still in support of him, so a bit of nostalgia remains for Lady in the Water to this day.

8. The Visit (2015)

Here's a tough question: is 2015's The Visit a good film, or is it just good in comparison to a terrible run of movies? I wonder this as I write this article, and have been tempted to find a rental or streamable way to find this film and give it another fair shake. I saw The Visit alone in a pretty-crowded theater, with a decent audience committed to the story and its twists. It features a grandfather and grandmother evil team, which is a bit silly. I also remember distinctly that this is a somewhat cheating found footage film, which is not an unforgivable trend per se. On the other end of the found footage spectrum from films like the original Paranormal Activity, The Visit only kind of uses a realistic reason for the events to unfurl on amateur camera. There's a few too many, "turn off the damn camera and run away!' moments and a couple of 'wait why is there a camera running during this private conversation' scenes as well. That's a really hard thing to avoid in found footage films however, so I'll let it slide in favor of some really effective jump-scares against a soundtrack-free backing. My biggest takeaway from The Visit is Ed Oxenbould's performance as Tyler an undiagnosed but interpretively OCD-sufferer grandson, who overcomes some large contamination fears to fight back against his grandfather. It was such an effective moment for me, I wondered if Shyamalan had some family or personal connection to OCD, because it hit home for me. The movie is good, but the characters of the kids are great, and that's enough.

7. Old (2021)

My intention for this film was, and may still be to review it fully. I think this is a film worthy of a bigger digestion for its many components, and various strengths and weaknesses. The flaws and problems presented by Old are almost as frequent as its unique directed decisions. It's no surprise to me that Old teeter-totters on a 56% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the damn film is so divisive. Its at times easy to love, and at others completely insufferable. I'm still not sure where to put it on this ranking, but I guess I should cover pros and cons equally. Let's start with the pros. Old is one of the most bonkers mainstream film I've ever seen. Conceptually pretty consistent: this is a beach that ages you more rapidly than usual, or mathematically about 1 year per 30 minutes. Does this number fluctuate more than the size of Godzilla in the 1998 Matthew Broderick feature? Yes. Does it matter? Well... maybe not. It's a very silly concept alone, and it almost seems to familiar to be original. But part of the fact that the concept is delivered somewhat successfully into a big screen project is impressive. This feels like a scary story, and the visuals propel it into some interesting and gruesome territory. Bodies decay at rapid rates. A woman is having a quickly growing tumor removed from an incision that closes up within seconds of being made. That's f**king cool! Too bad some of the other moments are undefendable, like a baby being born after a teenager has sex (at the worst possible time) on the beach know, makes you old really fast. What?! Why!? Damn you Shyamalan for your incredibly imaginative yet simultaneously foolish decisions! And then cons also include again his occasional inability to write natural dialogue post The Happening, unmemorable characters and a lame twist ending. I didn't dislike Old. I frequently liked it, in fact. But it's a mess, bless it or not, and it's a concept that wasn't bound for success.

6. Glass (2019)

This one might surprise a few readers, but Glass is far from the misfire many critics have claimed it is. It's a tough sell. 2 years after a psychological horror hit Split, the timing to bring back that antagonist could not be better. What's a bit harder is re-introducing Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson from their heroic roles in Unbreakable which was almost twenty years old on this release. But the bigger picture is that Shyamalan wanted to make an arc for the characters of the first story, even years later. Willis was actually on board for a sequel the year the film came out, but due to underwhelming box office results, the studios weren't on board. But with Split's popularity and the themes of superhuman powers in a world of regular people (a theme initially in Unbreakable) Shyamalan used a Marvel-esque stinger with Willis's character in the end of Split. This opened the potential for not just a sequel for McAvoy's stellar role as 'The Beast' but almost a team-up or collaborative feature for two older characters as well. At CinemaCon in 2018, Shyamalan teased: "The worlds of Unbreakable and Split finally collide in Glass. What if these real life superheroes and supervillains are somehow locked up together? What could go wrong?" If Split and Unbreakable are more truly psychological thrillers, Shyamalan considers this one the outlier: a superhero movie. I did mention his strict focus on thriller and horror features, but this is the genre exception to the rule. Where he failed in science fiction, he succeeds (mostly) in the action department. Each character bounces off each other with different levels of energy and personality, but the real star here is of course McAvoy. With his many split personalities that I'll discuss further in my ranking of the feature, one of his characters is always present to chew up the interior hospital scenery. And the action elements lead to a not entirely disappointing break-out, with some heroic and villainous moments that lead to a solid conclusion. Sure the lead-up to the actual ending was implied to be a skyscraper monster-mash, so I can see a bit of a mood-killer in that respect. But to be fair, this is still something of a psychological thriller. Three mad-personalities stuck in a mental hospital and the unraveling of their personas and intentions was enough for me, if not an altogether win for critics. It didn't shatter any records, but Glass is worth a second appraisal.

Oh man, that was a lot to get through, huh? Well I decided to spend so much time on each film, (even the ones that kind of sucked) to make this a two-part listicle! You're bummed? TOO BAD! I'm kidding.

But my number one? I'm not spoiling anything...

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