Is there a more divisive filmmaker around than M. Night Shyamalan? Yes, there likely are other filmmakers who provoke a range of strong responses. But not many of these directors present with a more polarizing filmography than Shyamalan. From the highs of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable to the lows of After Earth and The Last Airbender to everywhere in between, Shyamalan has tested the patience of audiences. Though he’s largely a maker of psychological horror with penchants for twists and inserting himself into his own movies, Shyamalan has dipped his toes into a variety of genres with wildly varying results. For this edition of The Chopping Block, we rank M. Night Shyamalan’s movies from the lowest of lows to his swooning highs.
13 – The Last Airbender (2010)
Boy, people really hated this movie. Literally, everyone seemed to hate this one. Shyamalan managed to enrage everyone from critics to general audiences to fans of the Nickelodeon animated series from which The Last Airbender was adapted. And it’s not hard to see why. Whether it’s the casting controversies or the convoluted storytelling, Shyamalan looks completely out of his depth on this one. Even the special effects don’t look particularly special. Short by today’s standards of blockbuster filmmaking, The Last Airbender still feels long in the tooth. Simply put, The Last Airbender is one Shyamalan movie where a twist ending may have saved the day – that you have never actually saw the movie.
12 – After Earth (2013)
Give Shyamalan some credit – for all the complaints about his use of twist endings, the director has never shied away from trying different genres. On paper, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith should have worked on some level. And After Earth boasts an interesting premise that at least has a bit more meat to it than some of Shyamalan’s other efforts. But make no mistake about it, After Earth is a truly terrible movie almost on the level of bad previously established by Battlefield Earth. Whether it’s the poor CGI effects or a young Jaden Smith’s acting, nothing about this thriller feels genuine. Similar to The Last Airbender, Shyamalan’s direction feels lost in a movie that outstretches his sensibilities. After a handful of big misses, After Earth was the nadir of Shyamalan’s career.
11 – The Happening (2008)
If Lady in the Water (next on the list) was a flawed approach to a unique idea, The Happening may the first truly bad movie on Shyamalan’s resume. Like most Shyamalan movies, there’s a great hook – something is making people inexplicably kill themselves. In spite of its intriguing premise, almost nothing about this ‘thriller’ work. Instead, The Happening veers into unintentional comedy. When a zookeeper kills himself by sticking his head into a lion’s mouth, you’re more likely to laugh out loud than scream in terror. By the time our survivors are panicking at the sound of a breeze, The Happening is beyond redemption. Both Mark Whalberg and Zooey Deschanel look completely lost, but no one escapes this dud unscathed.
10 – Lady in the Water (2006)
On one hand, you have to give credit to M. Night Shyamalan for stretching his creative wings and trying something different. Lady in the Water is a brave mix of psychological horror and pure fairytale storytelling. Maybe Shyamalan should have farmed out the screenplay to someone else because mystical creatures called Narfs and Scrunts invite derision. And derision found its way to the director. Lady in the Water took a critical drubbing while underperforming at the box office. To add insult to injury, Lady in the Water earned four Razzie nominations including two awards for Shyamalan himself – Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor. It may not be the worst movie in his filmography, but Lady in the Water represented a major downturn for the filmmaker.
9 – Glass (2019)
If there’s a movie out there with more missed potential than Glass, I’m struggling to recollect it. M. Night Shyamalan fans were justified in their excitement following the mid-credits David Dunn of Unbreakable fame cameo in Split. Here was a surprise warranting the buzz it produced. Shyamalan had crafted his own shared universe right underneath our noses, which is an impressive feat in this day and age. And while Glass is far from being a bad movie, it certainly disappointed. Shyalaman’s long-awaited sequel is plagued by awkward expository dialogue and questionable logic. Arguably, Shyamalan’s worst creative decisions are sidelining its trio of superpowered characters and delivering a finale that manages to let down all three characters. Glass is a good movie that feels like it could have been so much better.
8 – Old (2022)
After a career resurgence following The Visit and Split, Shyamalan found himself in the same middling territory of movies like The Village. His 2021 movie, Old, continued the downward trend started by Glass. No, Old isn’t a bad movie and neither was Glass. Based on Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, Old finds Shyamalan once again translating Twilight Zone-themed ideas into full movies. Just based on its concept, Old proves to be a watchable, if not messy, movie. Its piecemeal unveiling of the island’s impact on time and aging creates the requisite suspense. Moreover, Shyamaln finds interesting – and often disturbing – ways to visualize this rapid aging. Nonetheless, Shyamalan often seems confused about how he wants to deliver Old’s unique premise. While there’s early suspense and a few tense moments, too often, Old feels tonally wild. Still there’s too many good things in Old to dismiss it outright.
7 – The Village (2004)
If Shyamalan’s storytelling style was showing signs of cracks in Signs, The Village finds the first true fissures in the filmmaker’s modus operandi. In essence, The Village is two distinct movies – one is quite good while the other disappoints. For roughly two-thirds of its runtime, The Village is an ominous period piece about an isolated Pennsylvania village where the residents never leave in fear of creatures only referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of”. And that first chunk of a movie is just so good. There’s a stellar cast, an excellent score courtesy of James Newton Howard, and some great shocks on par with the best put on film by Shyamalan. Oh, but that twist ending, which is equal bits ridiculous and improbable, almost completely capsizes The Village. In spite of just how badly the twist derails the movie, The Village is just too good to rank lower.
6 – Knock at the Cabin (2023)
Similar to his last feature movie Old, Knock at the Cabin finds M. Night Shyalaman firmly in middle-of-the-ground territory. After a quickly tense first act that offers genuine intrigue, Knock at the Cabin loses some of its momentum. While it’s never dull, sluggish, or uninspired, Shyalaman loses some of the urgency he initially creates. Maybe it’s due to runtime that creeps up or perhaps it’s the result of a safe or sanitized approach to the material. For the most part, Shyalaman sticks the landing in a finale that focuses on emotion rather than an unnecessary twist. Strong performances from the cast, particularly Dave Bautista, make convenient plotting less glaring. Though it’s a flawed thriller, Knock at the Cabin is ultimately satisfying.
5 – Signs (2002)
Here’s the point at which Shyamalan’s film output becomes polarizing for critics and fans alike. Starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, Signs tells the story of a preacher and widower whose waning faith faces an extreme test when aliens pay a visit to Earth. And there’s no denying that cracks started showing in Shyamalan’s approach to storytelling. The exploration of faith mostly works though it strays into hokey territory in the finale. In fact, the finale requires a lot of coincidences for the story to work. If you complained about a plot that sees aliens allergic to water choosing a planet with lots of water to invade, you weren’t alone. But Signs mostly works with strong performances, a truly suspenseful atmosphere, and several standout scares. That Brazillian birthday party scene remains one of the scariest horror movie moments of all time.
4 – The Visit (2015)
After years of futility, Shyalaman re-established himself as a filmmaker who knows how to generate scares with The Visit. On one hand, you could be picky and point out that Shyamalan – an innovator early in his career- was jumping on the found-footage bandwagon. Nonetheless, The Visit found Shyamalan firing on almost all cylinders. Yes, he still relies on a twist ending, but at least The Visit isn’t reliant on how good or bad its final reveal turns out – and yes, the reveal works. No, The Visit never reaches the heights of The Sixth Sense. Yet in its own right, The Visit is a genuinely creepy film that understands how to slow burn. Keep in mind, the slow burn can be tricky; it’s a fine line between methodically ratcheting up scares and just being boring. At his best, Shyalaman knows the different and it shows in The Visit.
3 – Split (2016)
If The Visit announced M Night Shyamalan’s return, Split completed the divisive director’s comeback. Though Split caused some controversy with its depiction of mental illness, it scored both critically and at the box office. And it’s not hard to see why. Shyamalan’s story of a man with over 20 split personalities who kidnaps three young women to sacrifice to a soon-to-emerge personality, ‘The Beast’, is suspenseful movie-making at its best. Some of Shyamalan’s worst tendencies creep up. There’s a bit too much pseudo-science and expository dialogue. But those are minor qualms with a thriller that fires on all cylinders. Not surprisingly, James McAvoy mesmerizes regardless of which personality he’s channeling. ‘The Beast’ doesn’t disappoint. And stick around for the aforementioned final surprise – one Unbreakable fans wanted for years.
2 – The Sixth Sense (1999)
It’s hard to underestimate just what an impact The Sixth Sense had on the horror genre. Overall, the year of 1999 was a damn good one for the genre. Just a month before The Sixth Sense hit theatres, The Blair Witch Project was re-defining the limits of horror. To give you a sense of the movie’s popularity, it was released in early August of 1999 and I saw it in a theater in mid-November of that year. Today, movies don’t linger in the cineplexes for that long. No, The Sixth Sense was technically not M. Night Shyamalan’s first movie. But it’s truly the first Shyamalan movie as we know it. And it works perfectly on just about every level – from storytelling to scares and suspense to performances to the big twist itself. And yes, the twist that would define Shyamalan’s career withstands multiple viewings.
1 – Unbreakable (2000)
Deciding on The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable to sit atop this list wasn’t an easy task. Regardless of which movie fans prefer, M. Night Shyamalan scored an impressive ‘one-two punch’ with these thrillers. Before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shyamalan anticipated the comic book movie craze. Simply put, Shyamalan’s story of a security guard who slowly realizes he’s gifted with superhuman abilities introduced audiences to a grounded comic book movie ahead of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This is a slow burn psychological thriller that includes several payoff moments. The scene where David Dunn’s son tries to force him to reveal his abilities is supreme tension. And the train station scene that finds Dunn finally taping into his abilities is a high point, Yes, Shyamalan has a final act twist, but it’s almost as good as The Sixth Sense reveal, so who’s complaining.