Thursday, August 27, 2015

Is He Unbreakable? The Shyamalan Series Begins

On Friday, September 11th, director M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Visit, will be released theatrically in the United States. The film is of the found-footage variety, and apparently straddles the line between horror and comedy.

I’m…curious about it.

Now, I understand fully that Mr. Shyamalan is a controversial figure in film circles these days, though I have been a vocal admirer of his films since seeing The Sixth Sense in the theater in 1999.

I have rarely felt disappointed by Shyamalan’s silver screen work, in part, because it so relentlessly personal, so individual in visualization and story-telling.  

Indeed, I find it highly ironic that this cinematic artist is criticized so regularly (and so angrily) for boasting a consistent, distinctive approach to filmmaking while dozens of generic, cookie-cutter superhero movies get made every year and are lauded breathlessly as being something special and unique.

In short, I would take Shymalan’s brand of individuality -- failures and all -- over the specter of filmmaking by committee any day (and every day, for that matter).

Mr. Shyamalan often gets pigeon-holed by unappreciative critics as simply being a director who wallows in twist endings. However, I find his creative approach much more complex and much more intriguing than that descriptor suggests. 

I also know that critics -- at least many I have encountered -- simply don’t like being out-guessed. They don’t like it when a filmmaker surprises or outsmarts them, or does something different. Because all critics are above reproach and know everything about how to make movies, right?

Accordingly, Shyamalan’s film are often perceived by reviewers as a direct challenge to their legitimacy. His work is then judged negatively on the following basis: it either surprises successfully, or it doesn’t surprise at all. He is graded entirely by the twist ending, in other words.

He’s sort of in a no-win situation there, honestly.

Everyone has already pre-judged Mr. Night's next film, knowing that it will be glacially-paced, philosophically deep, and featuring some “twist” at the end. 

But what if that twist ending is not M. Night Shyamalan’s game at all?

You see, I don’t believe he actually trades in trick or twist endings. On the contrary, I believe that the description -- "twist ending" -- is simultaneously a neat short-hand, and a bad short-cut that allows people to avoid thinking.

In fact, as you will see, Shyamalan’s film narratives are all fairly linear in nature.

As a director, Mr. Shyamalan achieves something quite rare. He cleverly and repeatedly plays on and subverts audience assumptions in his films.

Near the conclusion of each of his movies, the curtain is lifted, so-to-speak -- because of new information --and the audience realizes it has been reading the picture entirely wrong, from the earliest frames. 

It’s not the ending that twists, in other words, it’s the audience’s understanding of the imagery and symbols featured that must contort.

Therefore, we are forced -- in this director's best work -- to question our initial assumptions about characters, about stories, and about events.  The twist, you might conclude, is that we come to recognize our own incorrect perceptions. 

But Mr. Shyamalan might rightly point out that he has scattered bread crumbs all along the way for us to pay attention to.  It's not that he's trying to trick us on our journey.  t's that he's trying to make us see. Our problem is that either we can't see, or that we misinterpret the signs, those bread crumbs left behind.

Is the game, then, in Mr. Shyamalan's films, actually to make viewers re-consider how they view the world? To see -- all of the sudden -- the erroneous assumptions that people take with them into new experiences? 

Perhaps that's too grand a claim. At the very least, however, Shyamalan's films make viewers sit up and pay attention. 

So -- as you can tell -- I am not a Shyamalan hater, quite the opposite. I detect beauty and virtue in the vast majority of his films. It saddens me that so many film lovers would rather criticize and hate his films than actually engage with his work, or meet him half-way in his explorations of the human soul.  I hate seeing people treat the director as a joke, or kind of reflexively gag at the mention of his name. Those are juvenile responses.

I should say as well that I have not, at this juncture, seen The Last Airbender (2010), so I cannot comment meaningfully on that effort, or its success and failure as an adaptation of previously created material.  People claim it is horrid, but people say that about all his films, even ones that I admire and adore, like that fantastic and moving bed-time story for the cinema: Lady in the Water (2007).

So, leading up to September 11th  and the release of The Visit, I’ll be conducting a Shyamalan retrospective here on the blog a few days a week. 

The titles featured in the series include The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2007), The Happening (2008), and After Earth (2013). I’ll cap off this blog series with a review of the new film, The Visit (2015).  

Just gazing at that catalog of titles, one must acknowledge, at the very least, thia director's continuing commitment to exploring the fantasy and horror genres. For sixteen years, he has worked exclusively in that terrain. 

As always, I can’t ask you to believe what I believe, or see what I see. I can ask only that you approach the films and my reviews with an open mind and respectful commentary.

First up is The Sixth Sense!  Check out my review here, tomorrow morning at 6:00 am.


  1. That is a great alternative counterpoint and counter argument to all that we here repeated in criticism of M Night.

    I genuinely appreciate your perspective on his films.

    Admittedly, Signs is a personal favorite. The Village was very good and, as you suggest, at least interesting and with some effort to do something quite the opposite of Hollywood's normal garbage.

    I very much look forward to your takes on Lady In The Water and The Happening. I have not seen those films but I have always been interested from afar.

    The naysayers have genuinely spooked me. I should not allow myself to be influenced by that school of thought when I so often find my own reading of science fiction television (Defiance and SGU) to be a much more positive reading than what we've been told to believe.

    1. Hi SFF:

      I appreciate your open-mindedness, SFF.

      And I absolutely see that open-mindedness in your reviews of SGU and Defiance, two series that I also admire. I believe SGU is a brilliant, wondrous series, and I can't stand to see people slam it. I prefer it to the rebooted Galactica by a wide margin.

      People seem to really hate M. Night, and I' not sure why. This legend has grown up that he is trying, with his "twist endings" to prove he is smarter than the rest of us.

      That argument doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. So, now we prefer filmmakers who aren't smart, and don't challenge us?

      People are nuts. :)


  2. The Sixth Sense is a masterpiece. Unbreakable was pretty good. But I admit I had a big problem with the other films I saw, especially with The Village and The Happening. They start out with this great premise, but then the endings/explanations fall totally flat. Like this great exciting buildup to nothing. I always thought it was a shame too, because everything else, like the camera work and lighting and all the other technical stuff is usually almost perfect.

    Still, I'll probably do what I always do and give The Visit a chance. Let's hope this one doesn't make me throw things at the television at the end.;)

  3. Very much looking forward to this. I absolutely loved Signs, and very much liked Unbreakable and the Sixth Sense. However, I'm very interested in seeing your reviews of The Village and The Happening, as both of those were disasters, in my eyes. I loved The Village up until William Hurt opened the closet (I'd also add I think Shyamalan cheated, but more on that later), and The Happening started OK, but terrible performances on top of a terrible premise sank it for me.

  4. Really looking forward to this series. I think Shyamalan has made some great movies. I've revisited a couple of them in recent months and found them very entertaining at the least. I really like "The Sixth Sense", that film holds up remarkably well in my opinion. But I'm very curious about your review of "The Happening". That film... well.. that isn't one of his best. :)

  5. You are such a breath of fresh air! Once again I now know I am not the only one in the universe who holds who holds such an unpopular view.

    The intense personal hatred critics (and fans) have for M. Night goes all the way back to "The Sixth Sense". Part of it is what you said above. But I also think part of it just plain old personal nastiness. Very often the word "arrogant" is used to describe him as they launch into a vindictive review.

    Also, and this extends to the fan communnity at large (especially in this snarky internet age), every time a super talented genre filmmaker has an extraordinary amount of success early on ant a very young age, there is this attitude of "who does he think he is? He is not that smart."

    J.J. Abrams also gets a lot of this bitter resentment cast in his direction, and to a certain extant Neill Blomkamp too. I think much of it is plain old envy. Many of these critics and fanboys alike think they are smarter and know better and it should be them directing big budget movies and M.Night and J.J. flipping burgers or peddling life insurance. Can you imagine the intense backlash Steven Spielberg would be facing if he came of age today? Even back then he was resented by a significant portion of the critical community and film press.

    Really looking forward to your reviews, especially on the criminally underrated "Unbreakable" and the critically blasted "The Village".

  6. Thank you, John. I absolutely love "The Sixth Sense", "Unbreakable" and especially, "Signs". I have a soft spot, even though he didn't direct it, for "Devil" which he produced.