Ranking the M. Night Shyamalan Films

Films I Still Need To Watch: Wide AwakeThe Last Airbender, The VisitSplit

Films I Need to Re-Watch: Glass

M. Night is one of the best filmmakers from the last thirty years. I am grateful for his audience and critical comeback in recent years, as it means that I will have the opportunity to get to watch his films in the years to come.


9. Lady in the Water [2006]

This film came at an interesting point in M. Night’s career. Before The Village, he had an incredible amount of goodwill attached to his name. And while The Village was a success in the moment, it eventually killed off a lot of that said goodwill (before later being reclaimed).

So, this was the first film that a large number of people appear to have approached apprehensively. And some just did not bother to approach it at all. After four hits in a row, this broke M. Night’s box office streak and solidified his status as a punchline for FAR too long. I remember deciding not to see it myself in the theaters and in fact it would be fifteens years before I finally did see it.

And boy all of this was a long way to say this film was…not good, and everyone’s cynicism was justified even if it was probably unfair. It seemed like everyone, including M. Night, was mindfucked by the reaction to the twist at the end of The Village. There is a sincerity to this one that I appreciated, but this was a distinct swing and a miss and nothing about it really stands out.


8. After Earth [2013]

After the purported disaster that was The Last Airbender, M. Night’s reputation is at a new low. And then he co-wrote and directed a Will Smith blockbuster that was considered an artistic and financial failure.

But here is the thing! After Earth, while very obviously flawed, is perfectly fine! The premise is pretty tight. Father and son are doing a space mission. They crash land on an abandoned Earth. Son has to go on a rescue mission to save himself and the injured father. Father and son grow closer together.

That is solid as hell, and M. Night well making the story (especially once they get to Earth) visually stimulating. It also feels appropriately M. Night with it being a high concept but (relatively) small scale, emotionally intimate story.

Now, again, the movie is not without its distinct flaws. In fact, similar to The Happening, the co-leads are miscast/misused. Will Smith did not take to the stoic, trademarked M. Night cadence like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson did. Jaden Smith also simply does not have It. He is a very believable pre/early teen: he is annoying and not interesting. But despite these significant issues, the film is still more than worth a look.


7. Old [2021]

Old really has all of the best qualities of Shyamalan’s works. There is a great gimmick that intrigues you from the start. There is a total sincerity and earnestness to everything that happens in the movie to ensure that you never get divested from what is happening on screen. And, of course, there is an ending that makes an impression on you and let’s you know you just watched SOMETHING.

A “beach that makes you age a full year every thirty minutes” is frankly a hall-of-fame premise for a film. It created scenarios equal parts horrifying and sweet, specifically when it came to the children. The way these young characters had to physically grow up and develop in 24 hours but only having the tools of kids who can do a pale imitation of adulthood from witnessing their parents.

There is something incredibly devastating about watching characters losing half of their lives in one day but also something incredibly touching about watching them trying to communicate their struggles with it in such a limited way. A rock-solid film.


6. The Village [2004]

“Forgive us our silly lies, they were not meant to harm.”

While there are merits to discussing this film merely on its contents alone, for me, I cannot separate the experiences I have had watching this films in public settings from the film itself. Compared to his previous three films, there was both an anecdotal and statistical evidence to suggest interest in another M. Night film went down with regards to critics and the box office.

The box office was down from Signs. After three straight critical darlings, The Village left critics wanting. This was the first M. Night film I did not see with extended family in the theater. The mood in the theater was clearly that of a group of people who were underwhelmed. There was an undeniable feeling that it seemed like people had “figured out” M. Night and instead of experiencing the film were waiting for the signature “twist” at the end.

The next time I saw the film with an audience was in college for a class. I sat next to a person who had never seen the film before, but clearly a large percentage of the classroom had. And the overwhelming response from everyone was…laughter. My friend next to me was continuously and increasingly confused as this somewhat scary film was always met with laughter by those around her. It was clear to me at this point the game was seemingly up for M. Night.

But with time and distance came wisdom, and now people are better about not making M. Night into a punchline and even treating this film with respect and reverence in some places. I must confess I am not quite at the latter yet, but this film is quite obviously enjoyable and well-done. It speaks to so many fundamental feelings that come from being alive. The desire for something more from this world. The belief that better is possible. The understand that with love and community we can build and aim for something more meaningful together. And the music. How about that music.


5. The Happening [2008]

The period of time in most need of rewatching for M. Night is his post-Village, pre-Split stretch. M. Night became such a punchline during this run of films that, fair or not, all of his films were tainted as “bad.”

I first saw this in the theaters, and I remember enjoying it. But I did not have the language to explain and then later defend the film. Do not get me wrong, the film has its flaws. Zooey and Marky Mark are just woefully miscast and, at best, add nothing to the film. Comparing this film to his earlier work, and you see what a difference it makes to have genuine movie stars like Willis, Jackson, or Gibson at the center.

But so much else about this film is well done!

It is a stylistic throwback to pre-60s film revolution. There is no false sense of realism in the dialogue and tone. It feels like a monster or horror film only it is executed sincerely instead of feeling like modern actors wearing “throwback” jerseys.

Then there is the actual content of the film which M. Night does as well as ever.

We are all in fucking trouble when it comes to climate change. It is coming. There is nothing we as individuals can really do about it. In this country in particular, we are uniquely unsuited to survive as a people due to the conditioned selfishness and false sense of self-reliance that has been instilled in us going back hundreds of years. We are all alone, and we are all going to die. The best we can do is be with the person we love the most and hope for the best.


4. Knock at the Cabin [2023]

Knock at the Cabin explores so many classic M. Night themes in fresh and thrilling ways. Yes, there is the test of faith in the face of the supernatural. But more than that, the film feels much more about the very real conflict that exists in all of us in the very real way that we are confronting the end of civilization as we know it.

Change is on the horizon. It is impossible to know exactly what that change is going to be, and that unknown makes that future change so terrifying. It is so temping to try to build a cocoon for ourselves and the ones we love and just hide from that reality. While impossible, Knock at the Cabin takes that concept at face value and forces a family to make their choice.

Treating that absurd notion as actually possible makes for a fucking terrifying premise of a film. Can we truly just keep ourselves and only ourselves safe? Or is there something more that we can do? Is all out of our control?


3. The Sixth Sense  [1999]

“How can you help me…if you don’t believe me?”

The Sixth Sense is the rare film that truly breaks through and becomes A Thing. The “twist” at the end was a genuine communal experience at the movies for people, and the film went on to be a box office smash and an awards season success. All of this is to say, these types of movies are difficult to separate from the experience that was the movie.

But rest assured, this movie is tight as hell. The movie explores the connection between isolation and fear. The importance of being heard and believed. It also tackles a continuous theme of M. Night: the need to believe that there is something out there. There is great comfort in there being something out there, and M. Night’s films are often at their best when he manages to create the tension from the potential horror and comfort of a higher power of some kind.


2. Unbreakable [2000]

I go back and forth on whether or not this is M. Night’s best film, but I have no doubt that this was M. Night’s coolest film. An invincible superhero is hiding in plain sight to such a degree that he does not even realize what he is? An evil mastermind with a broken body, who is so determined to find his opposite, commits terrorist attacks in the name of discovering a single invincible man? It is frankly just such a cool concept. Willis and Jackson fucking knock it out of the park. M. Night’s established somber tone at this point made for a great contrast with the absurdity.


1. Signs [2002]

I distinctly remember being in the theater for this in 2002. It absolutely rocked the house, and became one of my favorite movie-going experiences of my life. At thirteen years-old I was convinced the film was amazing. Beyond how much the film equal parts terrified me and made me laugh, I did not have much in the way of language to explain why though. Then as M. Night’s reputation and stature suddenly dropped dramatically, I stopped thinking so highly of this film and began to actually think lower of my younger’s self’s tastes for being so initially passionate about it.

As I grow older though, I, if anything, have come to appreciate what this film accomplishes even more than my early teenaged self. The movie is that same terrifying and funny thrill to be sure, but it is also a beautiful meditation on family and belief. That meditation is surprisingly centered around potentially a career-best performance from one Mel Gibson.

For someone who has always been a “loud” performer to a degree, what really made him so compelling for so long was the depth he conveyed when he was not being bombastic. M. Night manages to harness Gibson’s strength, and together they manage to craft a performance that captures all the turmoil and pain and loss that a widowed father who has lost his faith would be going through. Gibson holds it all in almost the entire which makes the brief moments of emotional outburst all the more impactful. Just a beautiful, beautiful film.


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