M. Night Shyamalan (born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan in Pondicherry, India on August 6, 1970) was raised in Philadelphia, where he has also set and filmed most of his movies. M. Night Shyamalan's first two feature films were Praying with Anger and Wide Awake, released in 1992 and 1998 respectively, both of which had heavy religious themes and were modestly received but not exceptionally successful.
He ended up writing a screenplay inspired by an episode of the Nickelodeon show Are You Afraid of the Dark? Shopping this script around, it became famous for a bidding war until Disney representative David Vogel bought it for a seven-figure sum without consulting his executives. This movie became 1999's surprise mega-hit The Sixth Sense, which featured a well-planned Twist Ending that was so widely discussed that everyone knows it now.
Oh, and speaking of 1999: Shyamalan also collaborated on the screenplay for Stuart Little and heavily rewrote She's All That. (It just took him until 2013 to admit to the latter.)
His fourth film, Unbreakable (2000), is often overlooked as it didn't make nearly as much money or attract so much critical approval as The Sixth Sense did, though it was still well-received and is nowadays considered a Cult Classic. Although it likely started the 'realistic' comic-book film (nearly five years before Batman Begins' release), it was viewed as low-key and 'normal' — so much so that many people don't realize he directed it. This film also had a twist ending and may have started the pattern for his movies to follow, which ended up creating a very negative Hype Backlash with every movie to follow.
Signs (2002) was the first of his films to receive extensive mockery, although there was no twist ending per se this time around (rather a sort of strangely meta use of the Chekhov's Gun principle). Despite this, it was still very popular in cinemas and was his second-most successful movie at the box office. It was also the last of his films for a while to get a mostly positive reception from critics, as pretty much everything leading up to the ending was solid.
Then came The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), and The Happening (2008). The Village had a few defenders and was quite profitable, but critics were still unkind to it, mainly because the ending was too sharp a curveball. Lady in the Water broke from the Twist Ending formula (being based on a bedtime story he had conceived for his daughters), but became the point where in some circles, his status officially fell from 'failing director' to 'laughingstock' (Disney, who oversaw his earlier films, was set to distribute Lady in the Water, but they didn't understand it; after Shyamalan reached 'laughingstock' status, Disney severed their remaining ties with him). The Happening, an R-rated horror flick about an apocalyptic event, was supposed to be his Win Back the Crowd movie. It was well-marketed, and more successful commercially than Lady, but soon became infamous as a So Bad, It's Good accidental comedy rather than a straight-up horror, as its villains were evil plants.
His next film was The Last Airbender (2010), adapting the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender (an animated show Shyamalan stated he quite enjoyed) to the big screen. Many people had reservations about the film based on the previews (being in live action, the stigma against Shyamalan on itself, and Race Lifting the main characters), but the trailers won over many of the skeptics. Less than one week after its release, however, the film garnered a near-universal negative reaction from both fans and critics alike, currently holding at 6% on Rotten Tomatoes. It became Shyamalan's highest-grossing project in nominal U.S. dollars since Signs (in large part because of the fans of the original TV series, many of whom have admitted that they regret spending the money to see it in theaters). While it made over $300 million worldwide, the film was a Box Office Bomb due to an overinflated marketing budget.
Shyamalan still has an outstanding deal with Media Rights Capital to produce—but not direct—one film a year for the next three years. The first of these, The Night Chronicles: Devil, was released in September 2010. Trailers initially played up Shyamalan's involvement in the film, but due to negative reaction, his name was not prominently featured in later trailers and the planned sequels were left unmade. His next film was a Will Smith vehicle called After Earth (2013), which he directed but didn't write; notably, the trailer for After Earth made absolutely no mention of Shyamalan's involvement. It wasn't quite as reviled as The Last Airbender, getting 11% on Rotten Tomatoes, but commercially it failed in the U.S./Canada market (and a movie with Will Smith is usually guaranteed to be a success) and has been compared to Battlefield Earth, sometimes even being called worse, or at least less interesting.
Since then, his career has started to take a turn for the better. (What a twist!) The Visit—a relatively low-key horror-comedy—was generally well-received and praised for bringing new blood to the tired Found Footage genre, while the more typically Shyamalanesque Ontological Mystery television show Wayward Pines received excellent reviews and was renewed for another season. Split has continued to buck the trend, garnering positive reviews and being very successful on a very low budget. A sequel, Glass, is in the works for 2019.
Some people wonder why Shyamalan has never made a sequel to Unbreakable, one of his better-received hits; at the time, Shyamalan insisted he would only use his Auteur License to make original works, not sequels, making an interesting case of What Could Have Been. In 2015 he expressed interest in revisiting the story as a television series, and further discussed such a continuation shortly after the release of Split for obvious reasons.
- Auteur License: The runaway success of The Sixth Sense granted him the ability to make his quirky films without hindrance until his second straight flop resulted in his license being revoked. Nickelodeon supposedly gave him one for The Last Airbender, but then he went and lost it. But, as noted above, he's on his way back up, and it remains to be seen if the success of Glass may yet win him a new one.
- Central Theme: In his earliest films, the main theme seems to be, everything happens for a reason.
- Surprisingly his film Film/Unbreakable took a different turn than how films usually tackle the theme.
- Color Motif: His films often use bright colors like red and yellow to emphasize the supernatural or otherwise scary or shocking elements in a scene. This is particularly noticeable in Unbreakable (which also uses the colors green and purple to isolate Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson).
- Creator Cameo: Shyamalan is noteworthy for appearing in his own movies. With the exception of Lady in the Water,note he tends to portray either villainous characters or characters who have a negative (or negligible) impact on the protagonist.
- Dull Surprise: In most of his films the goal has been to make the characters low-key and avoid overacting at all costs. From The Happening on, he has instead taken this trope, and it's become ripe for parody how often characters in his movies talk in hushed voices with low tones.
- A Hero to His Hometown: The Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri, their fourth highest civilian honour, roughly the equivalent to a British OBE, in 2008.
- Hollywood Hype Machine: He provides the trope image. Early on in his career, he was touted as being "the next Spielberg" and rocketed to the top... Although after a string of disappointing movies, he became the butt of many jokes. And now, ironically enough, this seems to have played out in his favor—with a string of surprise successes under his belt after becoming a punchline, he's actually managed to make a name for himself again without having unrealistic expectations placed upon him.
- I See Dead People: Trope title comes from a line from The Sixth Sense.
- Lampshade Hanging:
- He lampshades his common theme of twist endings in Unbreakable, where the young Elijah's mother gives him a comic book and tells him, "They say this one has a surprise ending."
- He does this in Lady in the Water:Farber: Why, you're not a dog at all. My God. This is like a moment from a horror movie. It is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character.
- Mandatory Twist Ending:
- At first, they were truly epic, but as time went on, the obligatory twist often made little sense, and was just there, because it being there is the rule. Also, no matter how good the twist is, it helps if the hundred minutes leading up to it support this twist instead of being a Shocking Swerve.
- Taken Up to Eleven with After Earth, as even the trailer had one.
- When they lack a twist, that is the twist!
- Split uses this to its advantage, as Shyamalan's name and the lead character having a Split Personality made everyone go into it expecting some sort of twist. In the end the twist of the movie had little to do with the lead characters, as the movie is basically outlined in the trailer. The REAL twist came in the very last scene, with David Dunn from Unbreakable watching the news report on the events of the story.
- Mockumentary: Sci-Fi Network made one of him. It was weird. Highlights included a near-death experience from drowning (which may explain why Unbreakable, Lady in the Water, and Signs all have lakes and rivers as a motif), that most of his films are set within fifty miles of each other, and that pictures with him in it had some odd light distortion.
- The Oner: Effectively his Signature Style. He sometimes uses it as Leave the Camera Running with two characters just talking in a certain location, if there is any movement it is just a slow push in. Other times he enjoys mild versions of an Epic Tracking Shot, using scenery and character movement to make it feel like different shots.
- Philadelphia: Shyamalan sets many of his films in the Philadelphia area, as mentioned above.
- Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: The Visit and Split switch constantly from being Nightmare Fuel to being completely goofy. How deliberate he was with this in The Happening remains unknown.
- Small Name, Big Ego: He was perceived as having this problem between the release of Signs and The Last Airbender. The aforementioned Hollywood Hype Machine touting him as being on par with Hitchcock and the like in spite of his young age as a movie director contributed to his ego exactly as one would expect—as evident with the ego-stroking present in Lady In The Water—which is a big reason while he got so much backlash in the films he made during that period of time. The scathing critical reception to some of those movies seem to have been a pretty humbling experience for him, and this perception has since decreased.
- Stealth Sequel: Split is one to Unbreakable; Glass averts this by making it clear that it's a sequel to both movies.