Born on August 6, 1970, Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan was born in India before his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he’s spent most of his life and makes most of his films.
Influenced by the likes of Steven Spielberg, a young Shyamalan apparently made 45 home movies after his father gave him a Super 8 camera. Expected by his father to follow in the family practice of medicine, he chose to follow his passion with the encouragement of his mother.
Adopting the name ‘Night’ sometime in college, it wasn’t until 1999 that the filmmaker made his mark on the world with the critically-acclaimed and box office smash “The Sixth Sense”. Although not his first feature, the film introduced the core themes in Shyamalan’s movies – issues of faith, characters dealing with tragic pasts, contemporary supernatural elements, and of course, those notoriously polarizing surprise endings.
Quite interestingly, after “The Sixth Sense”, his career started a slow but sure decline in quality, where each subsequent film was a little less loved than what came before, until the career lows “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth”. However, just when everyone had written him off, Shyamalan proved that there’s still more for him to offer with career resurgence “The Visit” and particularly “Split”.
Watching his career has been interesting; if anything, you learn what made him a sensation and what made him fall from grace and made him climb back up again.
12. After Earth (2013)
Where does one begin with this one? The bad acting? The so-so special effects? The uninspired directing? Or the ludicrous script? Either way, wherever you look, it’s all bad!
The plot is basically the true life story of how Jaden Smith feels about following in his father’s footsteps with a post-apocalyptic science fiction action backdrop added to make it interesting. Only it’s not.
It’s safe to say that “After Earth” is not only one of Will Smith’s worst films but also one of his worst performances. His biggest strength as an actor has always been his charisma and without that his acting becomes… well, it becomes “After Earth”. And nepotism aside, Jaden Smith seems to get worse at acting the older he gets. He was adorable in “The Pursuit of Happyness”, serviceable in the remake of “The Karate Kid”, and in this he’s, well… you know where this is going. To make matters worse, Will Smith is the supporting character and not the sidekick type.
Vanity projects never seem to work out well for actors (just ask John Travolta), and teaming up with Shyamalan made a terrible idea into a terrible film. No matter how good or bad his films are or who he casts in them, Shyamalan’s films have always felt his own, but in this one, he’s an afterthought as it’s all about the Smiths.
Shyamalan seems to be going through the motions, which you could never say about the director even on his worst films (or could you?). But “After Earth” seems to be on cruise control. It’s hard to sit through the whole thing without your attention wandering and at least Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth” was so bad it’s good – this is just so bad it’s bad.
11. The Last Airbender (2010)
How does a film regarded as one of the worst of all time beat “After Earth” on the ranking? Well, “The Last Airbender” is terrible, no doubt about it, but unlike “After Earth”, there are some good things about it. The score by James Newton Howard, some of the special effects, the acting is not all bad, and there are moments of a much better film somewhere in there. But the negative aspects far outweigh everything else that it’s hard to notice the good.
Based on the classic Nickelodeon animated series, the story follows an ongoing war between the nations of Air, Water, Earth and Fire, (mostly Fire). An Avatar named Aang (The Last Airbender) discovers he has the ability to control all four elements and possibly bring peace and harmony to their world.
The first problem is the script, which tries to condense the massive storyline into 100 minutes, which makes the whole thing hard to follow. The pacing is all over the place, the dialogue is hilariously bad, the characters are underwritten, and the child actors are atrocious. You wonder if Shyamalan has even seen an episode of the series because he carries none of the spirit in his adaptation.
Considering the way his career was going back then, it’s shocking that he was given the budget and green light to make the film. What “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” ultimately proved is that Shyamalan is bad at making big budget films and is far better off making small intimate films based on his own stories and sensibilities.
10. Praying With Anger (1992)
Written, directed, produced and starring a 22-year-old Shyamalan, this spiritual drama is one hard-to-find film and for good reason. The semi-autobiographical film is far from anything Shyamalan is known for, relying more on dramatic clichés, stereotypical characters, and one hell of a predictable storyline.
After the death of his father, a young American-born Indian travels to India for the first time as part of a college exchange program to learn about his heritage. Upon arrival, he experiences a clash between Western and Indian cultures.
While the director has cast himself in a few small roles throughout his movies, watching him lead the whole thing isn’t half as tolerable. The script is all over the place and fails to maintain consistency with its characters or dialogue (which is really bad in some spots) and the whole thing feels mostly condescending.
There are some interesting bits on Indian culture and traditions, and brief moments where you see the talented filmmaker that Shyamalan would become. Perhaps he was too young to do a story like this justice because with a story so personal you’d expect something deep and heartfelt, but you’re left mostly bored and cringing. Even die-hard Shyamalan fans aren’t missing anything here.
9. Wide Awake (1998)
Shyamalan’s second directorial effort and first wide release continues in the vein of “Praying With Anger” but more American and more family friendly.
Concerning the story of a 10-year-old boy who seeks answers about God, life and death after his beloved grandfather dies, it’s nothing but a typical family comedy from the 90s with nothing that sets it apart from other similar releases of that era.
Released three years after the fact, the film is probably Shyamalan’s most invisible film in his filmography, but it doesn’t come anywhere near his best work nor does it touch his worst work. It feels like a made-for-TV film and although it has its moments, it’s nothing worth getting excited about.
There’s no surprise ending or anything else the director’s known for. While it’s not terrible, it’s not memorable either other than Rosie O’Donnell playing a baseball nun (or is it football? Something involving a ball) and a teenage Julia Stiles making one of her earliest appearances. It is interesting that he’d undergo a complete makeover with “The Sixth Sense” a year later. Going from this safe family film to an adult supernatural thriller is an interesting leap.
8. The Lady in the Water (2006)
Tolkien wrote a bedtime story for his children that eventually became the classic novel “The Hobbit”. Shyamalan did the same and it eventually became “The Lady in the Water”.
Paul Giamatti plays an apartment complex superintendent who discovers a water nymph called Story in their off-limits swimming pool, who is being prevented from returning to her watery kingdom by a wolf-like creature. Pretty soon most of the apartment tenants band together to help Story get back home.
Inspired by bedtime fairy tales, the film never reaches the magic and wonder that fairy tales possess to suspend belief, and this probably has to do with the dull world building. Aside from the plot not making a lick of sense, the sort of interesting character stereotypes remain exactly that, which is a shame because if there were more dimensions to them they’d be uniquely interesting. They’re supposed to be quirky tenants who are likely to occupy an apartment building, but they end up feeling bland.
Throughout his career, Shyamalan has somehow managed to cast some of the best actors around in his films and this one’s no different. Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright and Bob Balaban are all wasted in this.
What’s most remembered, however, is Shyamalan basically writing himself into the story as a visionary writer, which not-so-subtly feels like commentary on the way the filmmaker feels about criticism towards his work. It’s the biggest part he’s played in his films (aside from “Praying With Anger”) and yes, self indulgent it is.
“Lady in the Water” is not worst film you likely to see. In fact, it’s not terrible, but what it is is boring and dull.
7. The Happening (2008)
There’s an inherent silliness about Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller that gives it a sort of charm, and the fun road adventure may make “The Happening” the director’s most underrated film.
Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel play a couple with marital issues who try to outrun an unexplainable natural disaster with some close friends. There are some creepily over-the-top scenes of people driven to kill themselves and Mother Nature plays an eerily omnipresent role. What may have pissed people off is the Shyamalan ending where everything just ends, like he had no idea how to conclude the story but to leave Easter eggs showing that this is just the beginning.
Wahlberg is hilariously miscast in one of his worst performances and seems to have no idea what Shyamalan is trying to do with the film or what to make of all of it. There’s absolutely zero chemistry between him and Deschanel, who somehow got less criticism than Wahlberg for her terrible and annoying performance.
Frank Collison, however, seems to having a good time and running with the madness, resulting in the most memorable character. Aside from Betty Buckley, but that’s for entirely different reasons.
“The Happening” does nothing new and isn’t scary for a single second. But something about a group of characters trying to outrun an invisible killer throughout the countryside is an enjoyable lark. If it’s viewed as a B-grade, Hitchcock, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” homage, the film works quite well and is Shyamalan’s most fun and funniest film to date, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.