This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
M. Night Shyamalan is easily one of the most divisive directors working today. He has a number of massive hits under his belt, but he's been seen as a joke by many people for almost two decades. But to be clear, I’m not one of them.
I’m the fan that still retells the three separate times I said “no fucking way...” to one of his mind-fuckery endings (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Split) yearly. I’m the dude that encourages Shyamalan comparisons to Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. And to this day, I defend him as one of the more daring directors in a sea of Hollywood conveyor belt artists.
But even I’m growing weak and frustrated with his work.
Just a few weeks ago, I viewed Glass—the 19-year-long sequel to Unbreakable (my fav) and Split—where a dude in the audience yelled, “fuck this movie” during the last 10 minutes, voicing my feelings perfectly. It wasn’t good. In fact, I hated it. And it brought me back to his legendary run of terrible bombs—beginning in 2004 with the widely criticized The Village.
From there came pretentious and roundly hated Lady in the Water. Followed by the Razzie nominated The Happening, that came just before the movie that coined the phrase “racebending,” with The Last Airbender. And don’t get me started with After Earth, the film that forced Will “ Wild Wild [fucking] West” Smith to declare it the “most painful failure” of his acting career. Every movie by M. Night in a four-film stretch (2006 - 2013) was designed to squash my hopes and make a mockery of a once respectable director.
So sure, I wanted the blood, but I also wanted to explore whether I could acknowledge these feelings and still be a fan. Was it too unfair of a thing to treat an artist like a scorned fan? Isn’t he just doing what he loves, if albeit, probably wasting his studio’s money?
Luckily, he still has a horde of fans who are just die hard enough to defend him in ways I didn’t consider. From professional critics, to regular folk, so I asked them all to defend the supposedly indefensible.
Greg Alba, YouTuber/Movie Critic
VICE: What would you say is the most frustrating thing about being an M. Night fan?
Greg: It’s that I have yet to see a movie from him that didn’t have massive potential when it was deemed bad. His films like Lady In The Water and After Earth were panned by critics and audiences , but they had so many ideas within them, from the philosophical to the world building elements that could have formed into a fully effective piece. Even something as crazy as The Happening could’ve been a truly effective horror movie if done right. But sometimes ideas alone are enough to make me enjoy a M. Night film. I know After Earth is considered one of his biggest disappointments, but believe it or not, I enjoyed it.
Can you tell me what movie turned you to M. Night’s work in the first place?
Like most people, it was The Sixth Sense. I find it fascinating how one film made him an immediate household name. Plenty of films come out with unknown directors that stay unknown with big hits. But after the Sixth Sense, everyone knew the name M. Night Shyamalan. I appreciate his work because it doesn’t go in line with delivering on audience expectations. He takes a different route that splits viewers. We need bold filmmakers like that. And I guess when there’s no one to help reel him in, he can become too self-indulgent with his ideas and think less about the character pieces that support the ideas.
I know about those frustrations, but what would you like him to do more of?
I love it most when he works with a more contained story. It’s why movies like The Visit and Split helped to put him back on the map, because they were a lot smaller compared to The Last Airbender and The Happening. I’ve never been an M. Night hater. As much as I was disappointed by Glass, I’m well aware that there’s a fanbase that’s connected with it, which is awesome. All I can hope for is that his future work dials back some expositional dialogue, and that he puts all his faith in his characters.He has to trust his audience to grasp the deeper meanings of his films through their journeys.
Paul Martin, Owner, M. Night Fans fansite
What’s it like to be a vocal M. Night Shyamalan fan today when critics denounce him so often?
Paul: It feels like being an outcast, to be honest. The thing is, no two people can agree 100 percent of the time over any film, so if I’m home and I want to check out a film by M. Night and talk about it, what’s it to you that I still love his work. Why should you even care? I mean, I see the criticism around him in the same ways that applies to the fanbases of the Ghostbusters and Star Wars franchises. They repeat the same criticisms as everyone else. It’s a mob mentality that discounts the elements that make his films cool to consider.
Do you find it harder to defend M. Night Shyamalan’s work as time goes on?
No, he isn’t and hasn’t been hard to defend, he’s an artist and he’s been put through the ringer. What I noticed is that every audience he was speaking to from movie to movie tended to be different, from the Sixth Sense to Unbreakable. He had films that couldn’t be enjoyed by the same audiences, and the comparisons muddled with that. The wrong audiences were seeing the wrong films. It’d be like doing a screen test for The Matrix with a room full of people who enjoy Lifetime movies.
So do you have any issues at all with him?
I guess the problem is that I believe M. Night spends too much time reacting to his audience, and that heavily influences his writing based on those reactions. I think he cares deeply about what people think of his work, and that can have a negative effect on his output
Jessica Hooper, Film Critic
I’ve defended M. Night for as long as I can remember, even during the bad. Is it wrong to still defend that?
Jessica: (laughs) Maybe I’m in a stage of denial, but I honestly don’t think there’s been a director that I’ve defended as much as M. Night publicly. He’s been the butt of so many jokes, even with his talent, and it’s almost fashionable at this point to bring up The Happening, which I still believe is great if you view it as the comedy that it is...it’s Mark Wahlberg as a professor, that’s funny (laughs). Anyway, I view fellow critics that exit out of his films who can’t wait to tweet a joke or demand that he stop making films. My own belief is that if he’s going to experiment, and even put up his own funds like in the case of Glass, he should be allowed to be terrible once in a while. That’s the beauty of this artform.
Vanessa Preciado, Fan
Do you think a lot of the criticism M.Night gets is valid?
Vanessa: NO, and I don’t usually go straight to race, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s a brown director and for some reason he isn’t allowed to fail. I’d like people to name a director on five fingers that didn’t fail. He deserves that, especially when he’s putting his own money up front for a lot of his movies. All these articles claiming that Hollywood is giving him a pass are getting it wrong.
Dag Sodtholt, Film Critic
Do you find it hard to defend him?
Dag: I don’t think it’s hard at all. A lot of critics have a superficial understanding of his films and I tend to ignore that. He’s at his best when left up to his own devices, but even when he has to compromise his work, I still can see still see the good. When he did big studio films without final cuts from 2008 to 2013, they had great passages, and I’m including The Last Airbender with its monumental climax.
So you’ve seen Glass ? Tell me what you think.
I’ve seen it three times already. It’s probably not as good as Unbreakable or Split, but I think it’s well acted and narratively complex. It’s also beautifully structured both within the film and in the dialogue that links to earlier works within his trilogy.
James Bullock, Film Critic
What are your thoughts on M.Night after seeing Glass , is it still hard to support him?
James: I love M.Night, but Glass was on the drawing board for 19 years and ended in a way that felt cheap, and an excuse for a longer running series of heroes and villains. I fucking hated that ending and it almost made me hate the entire franchise. I love that he continues to do things differently and that’s great. But sometimes, it’s like M.Night’s my dealer who occasionally gives me baking soda instead of the good stuff. I’m hooked on his potential but the disappointment hurts.
Devon Powell, Fan
So what turned you into an M. Night diehard?
Devon: I had a pretty tragic event happen to me in my childhood, so a few college friends took me to the movies to cheer me up. The film just happened to be The Sixth Sense, and I remember the audience being packed and everyone being just hooked to this ghost story. And when that final twist came in at the end, every single person in that gasped at the same exact moment. It was so rare and you could never duplicate that in a home environment. I feel bad for anyone that missed out on that experience.
So, we’ve all seen The Happening , The Last Airbender . Are you finding it harder to defend him?
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that his films during the four-film period ( The Happening, The Last Airbender, Devil, After Earth) were disappointing. Do I have trouble defending him? He’s done nothing that needs defending. He made a few films that aren’t as good as those that came before them. Big deal. Critics assume that a director is bad or lost their magic due to a string of successful films, and I say, they have no sense of history.
Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the best directors in the history of the medium, but he went through periods in his career that were as bad as M. Night’s. He spent the early thirties in a critical slumps, and came back with successful British thrillers in 1934. Do you want me to bring up Martin Scorsese’s career or Billy Wilder’s? Critics need to get a new gimmick because the “can Shyamalan redeem himself” angle is skewed.
Rohan Mohmand, Script writer
What was your first M. Night moment?
Rohan: It was that first scene in Unbreakable set in a fitting room, where Elijah is born and the doctor has to give his mother some bad news. In this scene, Shyamalan puts the camera on the mother’s face for as long as she tears up, and the scene fades to black with James Newton Howard’s score playing in the background. This moment made me a Shyamalan fan because I realized that you need cinematic vision, and a point-of-view. Thanks to M. Night, I’m working on two scripts that I hope to sell soon.
So given the inconsistencies, why do you go about defending him?
Why should I have to defend his talent? It’s there for everyone to see. He helped me decipher the code of cinema. After watching Unbreakable and the rest of his films, I started to view movies as something beyond just the entertainment. It’s about understanding the message of the filmmaker and learning something new. He’s a very talented artist, and there’s nothing hard about defending that kind of talent.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
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