M. Night Shyamalan (born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan in Pondicherry, India on August 6, 1970) is an Indian-born American film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor.
He was raised in Philadelphia, where he has also set and filmed most of his movies. His 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 inciting 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 as much critical approval as The Sixth Sense did, though it was still well-received and is nowadays considered a Cult Classic. Although it was likely the first notable "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 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 his status in some circles officially fell from "failing director" to "laughingstock", and also where Disney (who were set to distribute the film although their executives didn't even understand its story) was compelled to sever 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 commercially successful than Lady, but soon became infamous as a So Bad, It's Good accidental comedy rather than a straight-up horror, as — among various other problems — 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. Less than one week after its release, the film garnered a near-universal negative reaction from both fans and critics alike. 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 had 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 After Earth (2013), conceived by Will Smith as a vehicle for his son Jaden which Shyamalan directed but didn't write; notably, the film's trailer made absolutely no mention of Shyamalan's involvement. It wasn't quite as reviled as The Last Airbender, but it failed commercially 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 was released in 2019; it received mixed reviews, but was successful at the box office (though less so than Split.) His next original release, Old, also got a mixed reception, but was one of the more profitable releases during summer 2021 amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic.
You can now vote for your favorite Shyamalan film by heading over to the Best Film Crowner!
Films (unless when noted) as a director (unless when noted) with pages on TV Tropes:
- She's All That (1999, uncredited rewrite)
- The Sixth Sense (1999)
- Stuart Little (1999, writer)
- Unbreakable (2000)
- Signs (2002)
- The Village (2004)
- Lady in the Water (2006)
- The Happening (2008)
- The Last Airbender (2010)
- Devil (2010, producer/writer only)
- After Earth (2013)
- The Visit (2015)
- Wayward Pines (TV series, 20152016)
- Split (2017)note
- Glass (2019)
- Servant (TV series, 2019-present, directed 3 episodes and executive produced)
- Old (2021)
- 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 then Glass came along.
- Author Usurpation: You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't think of The Sixth Sense when asked about his work, though his detractors might think more of The Happening or The Last Airbender. Unbreakable naturally received a surge in recognition as well during the period where Shyamalan was making Split and Glass, though not quite enough to overtake Sixth Sense.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!: Some people are under the impression that "What a twist!" is an actual catchphrase of his, when it actually came from Robot Chicken.
- Career Resurrection: Due to multiple critical and commercial failures, his career was pretty much dead and buried around the beginning of the 2010's and he was more well known as a punchline and cautionary tale of a director who started out strong and faded or someone who believed their own hype too much than for his films. His fortunes began to change with the series Wayward Pines which showed people he still had some life in him and The Visit which was seen as a huge step up from his previous films. He then had a full-fledged comeback with Split which earned him rave reviews and did extremely well at the box office and many were excited to see the follow-up Glass (2019). Unfortunately, Glass was not as well received by critics (though extremely profitable), perhaps denting this resurrection. However, Shyamalan managed to more or less bounce back with his work on the TV series Servant, which he has co-executive produced and has had solid reviews in both its seasons so far.
- Central Theme: In his earliest films, the main theme seems to be, everything happens for a reason. Surprisingly 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 Backlash: Shyamalan has stated that The Last Airbender was the first film he saw as a genuine failure and still hasn't gotten over how he disappointed thousands of fans of the original source material.
- 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. He actually played the lead role in his first film, Praying with Anger.
- 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.
- Genre Roulette: Best known for mainly making horror movies or thrillers, a lot of his works explore different genres albeit via a horror, suspense, or thriller lens. The Sixth Sense and Old (Supernatural), Unbreakable and Glass (Superhero), Signs (Alien Invasion), The Village (Period Piece), Lady in the Water (Fantasy/Fairy Tales), The Happening (Disaster Movie), Devil (Religious Horror), The Visit and Split (Psychological Thriller), etc. Among the holdouts were the pre-fame comedy Wide Awake, his debut indie drama Praying with Anger, The Last Airbender (Action-Adventure), and After Earth (Science Fiction).
- He Also Did: He co-wrote the screenplay for 1999's Stuart Little and stated in a 2013 interview that he did a ghost-write of She's All That.
- 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 even though his later films didn't have what made the twists effective in his earlier films. 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 random swerve. (Or, in the case of most of his later work save Split, if the hundred minutes leading up to it are in any way entertaining.)
- 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.
- Misblamed: Not everything in The Last Airbender or After Earth was his fault.
- 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.
- No Indoor Voice: Inverted. You might notice that about 80% of the dialogue and line delivery in his films are all spoken in hushed or low voices. It makes the louder moments more jarring and quite frankly more unsettling. If not silly.
- 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.
- Orwellian Retcon: Seems to have embraced the public's perception of The Sixth Sense as his debut feature, ignoring the obscure Praying with Anger and Wide Awake.
- Playing Against Type: Playing around with this somewhat in his Career Resurrection. The Visit was far less art house than most of his previous films. Split is more of a return to form as a straightforward Psychological Thriller (unsurprising as it's a Stealth Sequel to Unbreakable).
- Production Posse:
- A number of actors have ended up as main characters in sequential films. Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Joaquin Phoenix in Signs and The Village. Bryce Dallas Howard for The Village and Lady in the Water. Betty Buckley breaks the trend somewhat by not being in sequential films, The Happening and Split.
- All of his films up to and including After Earth were scored by James Newton Howard, though Shyamalan couldn't afford to hire him for The Visit and Split, resulting in the former having a Public Domain Soundtrack, and the latter being scored by TV composer West Dylan Thordson.
- Screwed by the Network: His first major-studio feature, Wide Awake, was filmed in 1995 for Miramax but wound up on The Shelf of Movie Languishment thanks to Bob and Harvey Weinstein, eventually getting a token release in 1998. He never worked with the Weinsteins again.
- 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.
- Uncredited Role: He was an uncredited script doctor for She's All That. His contributions are mentioned on the DVD Commentary for the film.
- What Could Have Been: 20th Century Fox initially approached Shyamalan as the screenwriter and director for The Film of the Book for Life of Pi, which would actually have been quite appropriate because the novel's protagonist is also from Pondicherry, India, but he stepped away due to concerns on how his Mandatory Twist Ending reputation would impact people's perceptions of the ending.. It was meant to be his first project after The Village; but instead, he then made Lady in the Water.