Do you remember M. Night Shyamalan?
I saw the teaser for his new film with Will and Jaden Smith, After Earth, a while back and noticed something strange: it never once mentioned his name. This is M. Night Shyamalan we’re talking about here. The guy who blew everyone’s minds with The Sixth Sense, and then went on to wow audiences at a continually decreasing level with each additional film. The guy who became known for his crazy twist endings. The guy who had the coveted marketing title of “visionary director” written all over him. The guy who became a beacon of hope for directors of color the world over. That last one may be exaggerated, but the point is, he was big.
This post is a little exercise in looking at his career through the posters of the major movies he’s written and directed: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), and After Earth (2013).
A disclaimer: I am a fan of Shyamalan, but have not yet seen the last 4 movies listed above. From all that I’ve heard, I’m one of the lucky ones. I still want to see them, though.
To the posters!
The Sixth Sense (Domestic Theatrical Box-office: $293,506,292; IMDb user Rating: 8.2)
What do we see in this poster? What are the film’s selling points? It’s major one is the presence of Bruce Willis, whose name is the only one that appears dominantly. The rest is pretty abstract and ambiguous, aimed at setting the appropriate mood more than anything else. This is going to be a creepy movie and Bruce Willis is in it. You should check it out. It was Shyamalan’s first major film, so nobody knew who he was. As many of us remember, the film went on to become a massive theatrical hit. Leading to:
Unbreakable, the very next year. ($95,011,339; 7.2)
Not as big a hit as The Sixth Sense, but man, I love this movie. The whole thing is basically the first act of most superhero movies. So much that I like about it, but let’s stick to the poster. Selling points? Bruce Willis AND Samuel L. Jackson! They were awesome in Die Hard with a Vengeance! What else? “From M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director of The Sixth Sense.” Very interesting. He’s not yet big enough to be known only by his name. We still need another point of reference. The color scheme is also dark and mysterious. Then you have that weird tagline “are you ready for the truth?” which already hints at the twist-ending which Shyamalan would become known for. Ok, he made The Sixth Sense, Willis and Jackson are in it, there’s a mystery…this should be cool. NEXT!
Signs ($227,966,634; 6.7)
Boom. All you need to know is that Mel Gibson is in it and that M. Night Shyamalan made it. You already know who he is because you either loved his last two films or have heard about him and how huge The Sixth Sense was from all of your friends and the media. They don’t even feel the need to tell you what movies he made. “It’s happening,” and it’s going to be huge. Also of interest: Joaquin Phoenix was not yet big enough to warrant a space on this poster. We don’t get much else. By this point, Shyamalan has already developed a following that will go to anything he makes. The poster once again points to some mysterious events and dark colors. Next, the beginning of the fall…
The Village ($114,197,520; 6.5)
This is a pretty creepy poster. The 3 rules already suggest the presence of some creature or undesired entity. Shyamalan’s name is in a font that’s almost as big as the movie’s own title. He’s on top of the world right now. No actors are even mentioned. You’ll want to see this because it’s a Shyamalan film. “There is no turning back,” indeed. No one could have seen the series of flops that this would start off. This film, while crossing the $100 million mark, made about half as much as Signs.
Lady in the Water ($42,285,169; 5.7)
I still haven’t seen this film, but I’ve heard a lot of really weird stuff about it, especially in relation to Shyamalan’s acting role. His name is still very prominently placed, much bigger than his lead actors: Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti, whose appeal are nowhere near that of Willis, Jackson, or Gibson. Not really sure what the poster is trying to convey. I feel like the tagline could just as easily be featured on a race-against-the-clock romantic comedy. The color scheme is all blue, which I think is generally reserved for happier, naturey, or more fantasy films. Doesn’t really fit in with the other posters above. There’s nothing super mysterious about it or suggestive of what kind of movie it might be. Which may help explain the return to more familiar imagery – and text – for his next film:
The Happening ($64,506,874; 5.1)
Also haven’t seen this one, though based on the poster, this movie could be called Signs: The Streetz. All we really get is Shyamalan’s name up top, his lead actor’s down at the bottom, the movie’s title, and its tagline: “We’ve Sensed it, We’ve seen The Signs, Now…It’s Happening.” Not only does this tagline directly reference his two most successful films, it’s also identical to that of Signs! What?! They’re trying pretty hard to convince you that Shyamalan is back to his old self: creepyness, mystery, and a twist. All the things you’ve come to expect from a Shyamalan film.
The Last Airbender ($131,722,187; 4.5)
…do I have to talk about this one? What a weird product. My guess is that 99% of that $131 million came from fans of the AMAZING source material. I haven’t heard a single good think about this movie from anyone who has seen it, young and old alike. And while IMDb ratings certainly aren’t an end-all form of evidence, I think it’s telling that each successive film has a lower rating than the last. Poor guy took a pretty bad beating from the box-office, movie critics, movie fans, internet trolls, pretty much everyone.
Which finally brings us to After Earth.
And Shyamalan is nowhere to be found. Sure, when you have Will Smith in your movie, you really don’t need anything else. But something tells me if this movie had been made in the early 2000s, his name would be all over it too. Every single selling point is worth putting on a poster. For this film, all you need to know is that the Smiths are in it. And man, are they right. I would see this movie regardless of the director. Still, it’s odd that they wouldn’t include Shyamalan’s name on there. Is his name actually seen more as a liability now than a selling point? That’s crazy to me. He’d still be a selling point to me. Though I don’t know how I’d feel if I’d seen Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. Another interesting point: this is the only one of Shyamalan’s films in which he does not have sole screenwriting credit.
I feel bad for the guy. There’s no way you can please everyone when you make a career out of twist endings. It goes against the trope’s very nature. Here’s hoping After Earth is a huge hit and that we’ll see his star rise again.
Maybe some day I’ll do a similar thing with all of these films’ trailers…