M. Night Shyamalan is a peculiar director. A man whose career has been through several ups and downs, though more often than not people can't seem to agree which are the hits and which ones the misses. Nevertheless, Shyamalan has always managed to straighten his back after one of his films got shot down by the critics or bombed at the box office. He also evolved from being a one-trick pony to becoming a more fleshed out director, so going through his oeuvre is definitely a rewarding experience and is sure to unearth some worthy films.
Even though Shyamalan is a well-known director, many people (including myself) never got around to watching his first two films. He released his very first film in '92, but Praying with Anger never made much of a dent, not in the least because the film lacks mainstream distribution. Six years later Shyamalan would direct Wide Awake, a cheesy looking sports comedy with religious undertones. Not quite the crowdpleaser either, but at least it's more readily available for those who want to take the plunge.
Shyamalan's career really took off in '99, when he released The Sixth Sense and switched to the horror/mystery genre. The film went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, endlessly referenced by songs, films and series and ultimately defined by its twist ending. While Shyamalan definitely deserves praise for these accomplishments, the film itself really isn't all that great and its rewatch value is quite disappointing. The same can be said about his followup, Unbreakable, though again Shyamalan deserves credits for the novel way he incorporated the superhero theme into that film.
Signs was Shyamalan's first film I found successful beyond the twisty character of its narrative (and in fact, wasn't all that twisty to begin with). It's a moody, fun and sneaky alien invasion flick that leaves little to the imagination, but at least doesn't pretend to be anything more. It's a shame Shyamalan's next film (The Village) turned out to be the worst thing he ever directed. Still, many people are in love with it and its love it or hate it status became infamous, so your mileage may vary.
When Shyamalan thrives on narrative I tend to get bored real fast, luckily he also made a couple of films that explore more original concepts. Lady in the Water is a modern (somewhat darker) fairytale that oozes atmosphere. It's my favorite Shyamalan, which isn't too surprising knowing that Christopher Doyle handled the cinematography. He followed up with The Happening, a pretty delightful and freaky eco-horror that delivers a novel and atmospheric payback on humanity by none other than Mother Earth.
With that out of his system Shyamalan went on a little commercial Hollywood adventure, starting with the adaptation of The Last Airbender. I never watched the original animation, which probably made the film a bit more bearable for me, but for a blockbuster it sure turned out lackluster. Needless to say critics completely annihilated the film. Shyamalan slipped away even further when he took on After Earth, the infamous Will/Jaden Smith scifi collaboration. The movie screams "gun for hire" on every level, a shame for a director who clearly has more up his sleeve.
Luckily Shyamalan knows how to bounce back and with his latest films he really regained his footing. The Visit is a sneaky little mystery thriller and Split another interesting take on the superhero genre. It's a little worrisome that Shyamalan is planning on connecting the Split and Unbreakable universes (which sounds a lot like he's indulging in narrative overhead again), but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. When he's at his best, Shyamalan is an interesting director who adds something unique that you won't find anywhere else. Not every film's a hit, but most of them are definitely worth checking out. I'd say it's best to avoid After Earth and The Last Airbender if you're willing to break into his oeuvre, apart from that there's plenty of quaity in his films, you'll just have to find out which ones speak to you the most.
Best film: Lady in the Water (3.5*)
Worst film: The Village (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)