When he first got his breakthrough in the late 90s, he was celebrated as the next big thing but the inconsistency through his career made him somewhat of a divisive filmmaker. At some point in his career, he seemed like he makes only failures and if you were no fan of his earlier output, then it wasn’t hard to hate him. Him always trying to defend his work from criticism was not a good look also. Then again, he always had his fans and defenders as well because no one makes movies like M. Night Shyamalan, for better or worse.
He has his own style which is somewhat distinctive in modern mainstream cinema. His way of using camera, the way he builds suspense, how he brings some dramatic thought-provoking themes into his movies and his way of bringing unpredictable twists still brings so much entertainment to his fans which is probably why they always make good business at the box office. They’re also original. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t do adaptations but he picks materials that are different than anything else on cinemas. That’s why he’s always intriguing and interesting. The man is very passionate about his craft and it’s very evident in big part of his filmography.
Before we start the list, here’s an honorable mention goes to the first season “Wayward Pines”, one of the more entertaining summer network shows of the last decade and “Servant”, one of the most atmospheric thrillers out there.
15. The Last Airbender (2010)
Since we usually begin ranking from worst to the best, it feels almost unfair to the director to start talking about them with their misfires and boy, is this an absolute misfire. Type of film that is hard to defend on any level but M. Night have actually tried his best defend it from criticisms which hurt his public image at the time. It’s based on a beloved Nickelodeon show and obviously it has its own challenges to adapted animated series into live-action but Shyamalan makes some of the worst creative choices possible for the material.
His style turns the story into something dull and boring, total narrative failure. His somewhat problematic casting (who are all kind of terrible in the movie) and him being unfaithful to the original material alienated the fans of the show as well. Then we have choppy editing, terrible score (or at least the use of it), awful special effects and horribly written dialogues. It came around the time when Shyamalan was not at his most creative but even he was at his peak, he was still a weird choice to handle the material. Years later, he admitted that he regrets taking on the film and he “rightfully got crushed” .
14. After Earth (2013)
It’s not a stretch to call Shyamalan an auteur but here it seems he was more in the service of Smith family than himself. In fact, in a stark contrast to his previous films, his name was notably absent from several trailers, TV commercials, and marketing signage.
Everything was focused on Smith duo, the idea came from Will Smith and it was obviously vanity project of a sort to turn Jaden Smith into a star which of course, didn’t happen. It was all Smith’s idea who pitched it to M. Night and he even planned it to have live-action series, animated series, a sequel, a theme park and so on but the film flopped at the box office and received harsh reviews. It’s not as bad as critics made it out to be and certainly not “Battlefield Earth”-level awful. It has more decent story and some fine set designs. Then again, it doesn’t matter because narratively it’s dull and the special effects are once again terrible.
13. The Happening (2008)
This one is probably the most mocked and ridiculed one among Shyamalan’s films, yet it’s still ahead of “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender” because the other two felt like “director-for-hire” jobs. Meanwhile, “The Happening” does indeed feel like a Shyamalan movie. Not the best one maybe but still his signatures are all over it. If you see the movie without thinking of all the internet memes, it has a very interesting premise that could work if it was executed right.
The problem is, yes, it wasn’t executed particularly impressive. The atmosphere is just not tense enough which makes some of these supposedly horrific scenes come off really silly. His direction of actors is also unimpressive as everyone delivers lines in hilarious way. Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo have all been better elsewhere. Still, it’s a watchable film with kind of a B-movie charm in itself and the message ain’t too bad. Wahlberg regretted making the film but then again, it’s the same guy who also regrets “Boogie Nights” and doesn’t seem to mind that he turned down “Brokeback Mountain”.
12. Lady in the Water (2006)
His previous efforts had their detractors but “Lady in the Water” is where his notorious decline had started. The film was ranked sixth in the influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma’s top ten films of 2006, which shows that Shyamalan still had support from European film critics but he lost the North America with this one. Especially the role he casted himself in there and the way he portrayed critics lost him even more points.
Other than that, “Lady in the Water” has an interesting premise actually but it seems like sometimes he has good ideas but he doesn’t know how to polish the script. Maybe a co-writer would help to turn into something better because the film simply doesn’t go anywhere. It gets boring and uninvolving throughout. Still a better made film than some of his following efforts but for us to buy a premise like this, more effort should’ve been done. The highlights include a wonderful score and some fine acting. If we’d summarize the “worst Shyamalan” period (2005-2013), they’re mostly defined by weak script as if he decided to film the first draft.
11. Old (2021)
It’s hard to rank this one for several reasons because it’s closer to “The Happening” than other films. This one is technically better, not much silly moments that would turn its scenes into some internet meme but that also means it lacks the charm and fun of “The Happening”? That one feels like a B-movie straight out of 60s, at least. Not to say “Old’ is bad. It’s not, it’s just mostly disappointing and bit dull.
The story is intriguing but it doesn’t go anywhere interesting, mostly because of the lack of character development. The acting isn’t much strong and atmosphere-wise, it’s one of the films where M. Night just missed the mark a little. You gotta give it to this man when it comes to twists. They might not be very logical but they’re also unpredictable for sure. The problem with the twist here is that you don’t care enough about what happened before, so the twist doesn’t come as shocking. Still, it was nice to watch a film with much different premise than the summer movies of its year.
10. Praying with Anger (1992)
On a technical level, “Praying with Anger” is obviously his weakest but understandably so, it’s basically a student film. Yet it’s not bad at all, despite all the amateurish writing and directing, it has lots of moments that gives a hint of what Shyamalan will become in the future. The man who’s well-known to give himself a cameo role in his movies plays the lead role this time.
Shyamalan plays a a young Indian American who returns to India and explores the clash of Western values with those of the Indian subcontinent. He’s a director who had mostly been loyal to his own interests and rarely did films that feel dishonest but for sure, this one was his most personal film. Some of the themes are expectedly on the nose but the film also has a charming quality because of how earnest it feels. There’s little bit of pretentiousness you can expect from a young film student but still, it mostly works. Maybe Shyamalan will return to these themes sometimes and will give us his own “Fabelmans” someday.
9. Wide Awake (1998)
No, “The Sixth Sense” was not his mainstream studio film debut. It was instead “Wide Awake”, more remembered as “Rosie O’Donnell nun movie” these days, which was unfortunately ruined by Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein reportedly “destroyed” him and made him cry, before taking over the film’s reshoots and edits. O’Donnell tried to defend him but Weinstein wasn’t nice to her either. As for the film, this being a family movie should not surprise if you know he also co-wrote “Stuart Little” (1997). it has some of Shyamalan’s favorite themes as his work often explored themes of faith and religion.
This is a story about a kid that questions the existence of God and meaning of life after his grandpa’s death. Certainly an interesting story but it’s tone is strange, it plays like a Disney family movie but the questions can be little too dark for the children and its twist ending (yes, of course, it has a twist ending!) is little bizarre given most of the film was rather ambiguous. Still, as often with Shyamalan, it’s an unusual type of movie, as it features somewhat unusual plot for a family film. That’s why it’s worth to check out .If this was a hit, would he go for a different direction in his career? Who knows. This is also somewhat personal film for Shymalan as it’s heavily influenced by his own experiences in Catholic school.