The only potentially surprising thing about the ending to “After Earth” is the first given credit: “Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” A name that would have once been the main draw for a moviegoing audience just a decade ago, the director is now being downplayed in the marketing so as to not set up potentially toxic expectations for the project. In honor of his tenth feature film, let’s take a good, hard look back at the tense highs and terrible lows that have made up (and brought down) Shyamalan’s career to date.
1. “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
Shyamalan’s Oscar-nominated breakout hit is still his most masterful movie, concerning Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy who can see ghosts, and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), the child psychologist meant to help him. But TWIST! The boy is actually helping the psychologist... namely in that Crowe’s been dead all along and needs a hand in moving on from this unfortunate predicament. “Sense” maintains a great sense of classical tension, but even more vital is the undercurrent of melancholy that elevated this above your usual supernatural mystery and generally separates Shyamalan’s better films from his more simplistic, Serling-worthy (or worse) endeavors.
2. “Unbreakable” (2000)
Following up “The Sixth Sense” is no small feat, but this inspired origin story for an everyman-turned-superhero has aged about as well, anchored once more by Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a Philadelphia security guard who survives a catastrophic trainwreck unscathed and is encouraged by fragile comic-book die-hard Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) to consider his particular knack for invulnerability as a sign of Something More. But TWIST! Elijah is responsible for outing David by causing many a local disaster and considers himself the inevitable archnemesis, a tragic arc sold beautifully through Jackson’s performance.
3. “Signs” (2002)
The box-office receipts for “Unbreakable” failed to support Shyamalan’s plans for a trilogy, and so the writer-director skirted sci-fi territory by pitting another dysfunctional Pennsylvania family against an impending alien invasion. Mel Gibson delivered his last great pre-tabloid turn here, and I dare say that the nerve-wracking and slyly funny first hour or so compensates for -- TWIST! -- the film’s divisive denouement, in which every character’s particular advantage in defeating the aliens had been anticipated in the final words of Gibson’s dying wife as all part of God’s Plan.
4. “The Village” (2004)
Unfortunately, the twist-happy auteur had begun to pigeonhole himself as exactly that, and what came after the nerve-wracking first hour or so of his “Signs” follow-up -- in which the residents of a monster-menaced village fear that their long-standing truce with the creatures in the woods has elapsed -- finally proved too far-fetched for many moviegoers to accept. (TWIST! The “village” exists as an isolated present-day experiment in crime-free, self-sustainable living.) For all of Shyamalan’s formal chops behind the camera, his screenwriting sensibilities were proving to be their own seemingly insurmountable problem.
5. “Wide Awake” (1998)
Shot in 1995 but not released until three years later, Shyamalan’s first studio effort shares a kinship with his directorial debut, “Praying with Anger,” as an earnest exploration in faith. Set at the same Philadelphia Catholic boys’ school that Shyamalan himself attended, “Awake” sees fifth-grader Joshua Beal (Joseph Cross) questioning his faith after the passing of his grandfather (Robert Loggia). More than anything else, it exists as a proto-“Wimpy Kid” flick with a religious bent: our neurotic lead has quirky friends, tidily episodic adventures and a crush on a girl his age at the neighboring girls’ school, narrating every shenanigan and soul-searching detour by way of diary entries. The result is corny as hell, but at least consistent in that regard. TWIST! That mute kid roaming the halls throughout the school year is actually an angel keeping an eye on young Josh. (No, really.)
6. “After Earth” (2013)
In the wake of his recent follies, this big-budget father-son sci-fi adventure has no mind-blowing, game-changing twist in store -- if anything, I’d argue that it’s straightforward to a fault -- but it sees Shyamalan returning to a safe, if wholly unremarkable, level of filmmaking, although his tendencies towards spirituality still manage to inform the story to an extent. Our official review will be up soon.
7. “Praying with Anger” (1992)
In addition to writing, directing and producing, Shyamalan starred in this semi-autobiographical story of an Indian teen raised in America reluctantly returning back to India as part of a student exchange program. The usual culture-clash and coming-of-age clichés ensue, and while Shyamalan is an able performer, some of his co-stars are more stilted in their delivery of his regrettably typical dialogue. It’s a first film all around, offering little early evidence of the filmmaker’s eventual talents, but when taken with “Wide Awake,” it’s an indication of the cornball helmer Shyamalan might have become had “The Sixth Sense” not landed with such force.
8. “The Last Airbender” (2010)
This live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon ‘toon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” saw Shyamalan returning to family-friendly fare with a much bigger budget, but his take was greeted with hostility, both from purists over story changes and casting choices (namely, the minimal inclusion of Asian or Asian-American actors to play beloved characters) and from newcomers, who found that his early finesse with child actors had waned as evidenced by the wooden performances. Chief among the film’s offenses, though, is the simple fact that -- TWIST? -- “Airbender” ultimately plays out as an unforgivably dull and derivative special-effects showcase.
9. “The Happening” (2008)
While comparisons to the signature suspense stylings of Alfred Hitchcock ran rampant after Shyamalan’s initial success, only this film so clearly modelled itself on a particular predecessor: “The Birds,” but with -- TWIST! -- killer wind inexplicably punishing a whole new wave of Philly residents. Despite some striking deaths in the first act, the eerie mood soon dissipates in the face of an inherently uncinematic foe (I’d suggested post-screening that the exhaustively expository film would’ve worked better as a radio play, a theory since been proven correct), and beyond that, the uniformly tone-deaf performances combine with some of his silliest dialogue yet to form an unintentional comedy of the highest order.
10. “Lady in the Water” (2006)
The eccentricities of “The Happening” were only outdone by this high-minded fairy tale, in which a Philadelphia handyman (Paul Giamatti) rescues a water nymph (“The Village’s” Bryce Dallas Howard) from the apartment pool and has to assist her in finding an author whose forthcoming work will better humanity. Sure enough, that writer is played by Shyamalan himself, a character who comes to learn that he will be martyred for his controversial, world-changing ideas. It’s a breathtaking feat of ego amid so much other nonsense (example: a young boy decodes hidden mythology from the backs of several cereal boxes), topped off with the proud slaughter of a snobby film critic (Bob Balaban) who leads his neighbors astray when trying to predict the formula of their own story. Right, because it’s not like “The Sixth Sense” had a lick of critical support...