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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

M. Night Shyamalan's once promising career had been sidelined by this stretch of five terrible movies.

Five movies that ruined M. Night Shyamalan's once promising career


"After Earth" is a new science fiction action thriller starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith and a whole mess of angry, post-apocalyptic animals. Or at least that's the film the advertisements are selling. A careful look at the poster for "After Earth" reveals its big secret: The director is none other than disgraced former master of suspense M. Night Shyamalan.

How did it get to this? How did Shyamalan evolve from one of the most exciting names working behind the camera, developing jaw-dropping twist endings and truly moving plotlines, into a liability that can't even be mentioned in the marketing? Here are the five movies that deserve the most blame for tainting Shyamalan's image and bringing the writer-director's once promising career to its knees.

"The Village"

Shyamalan's career was riding high after his monster crop circle hit "Signs." The movie made a shocking amount of money at the box office and deservedly so; it's a nifty, intimate thriller that stands as one of my favorites. Obviously, audiences couldn't wait to see what he would do for a follow-up. This is where the disappointment begins.

His next feature ended up being 2004's "The Village," a glumly serious thriller about an isolated country community that is under assault from mysterious cloaked monsters in the woods. The film had a lot of potential with its star-studded cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver, a young Jesse Eisenberg) and moody direction, but it ended being up for nothing. The story didn't know how to wrap itself up, and the pressure on Shyamalan to deliver a massive twist resulted in an ending that featured about five big reveals, none of them good. It was Shyamalan's first big misfire as a director, but little did audiences know the worst was yet to come.

"Lady in the Water"

I'm actually in the awkward minority of people who don't hate "Lady in the Water" all that much. I actually think it's close to Shyamalan's best movie during this legendary rough stretch. That being said, it's still a mess, and worse yet, it's a mess with an ego attached. The director always had a habit of making cameos in his films Alfred Hitchcock-style, but with "Lady in the Water," he graduated himself to a main character. Not only that, he casted himself as Vick Ran, a writer whose works will someday change the world. Subtle. If that wasn't enough, "Lady in the Water" also featured a snooty film critic character, played by Bob Balaban, who ended up being the story's lone casualty.

Let this be a lesson to all of you young filmmakers out there: A bad way to go about winning back your detractors is by creating a movie whose message is, "you are wrong, and I am a genius." And if you do want to take this dubious route, make sure the movie is good. Shyamalan didn't, and critics pounced, tearing apart his convoluted mythology and stiff dialogue. Thank god for Paul Giamatti; without his predictably solid lead performance, "Lady in the Water" may not have gotten a single positive review.

"The Happening"

"The Happening" was supposed to be Shyamalan's return to form. The story, featuring a global pandemic of unknown origin causing people to kill themselves, actually had a lot of potential, and I remember seeing trailers and thinking that this was the return of the M. Night Shyamalan we used to love. Instead, it was just another failure, though "The Happening" deserves credit for being his most hilariously inept failure. The dialogue sounded like it was written by someone unfamiliar with the English language or human interaction in general, resulting in infamous moments like an old lady angrily wondering why Mark Wahlberg was staring at her lemon drink.

Add in Zooey Deschanel's wide-eyed, emotion-free performance as Wahlberg's wife, wannabe horrifying moments that continually escalated in laughter and a twist ending (it was the plants) that didn't help make any of the silliness before worth while, and you have a recipe for disaster. "The Happening" ended up failing miserably as a horror flick but succeeding tremendously as unintentional comedy.

"The Last Airbender"

It's an adaptation of a wildly popular Nickelodeon animated series. All Shyamalan had to do was watch the cartoon and duplicate it with real people. It wouldn't have been all that imaginative, but at least it would've been a step in the right direction. And Shyamalan was famous for working well with kids in the past (Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin in "Signs"), so he seemed to be a perfect fit. There's no way this could go horribly, horribly wrong … right?

Cue sad trumpet sound.

Somehow, despite all of his failures before, Shyamalan managed to outdo himself with "The Last Airbender." Let's forget about the film's continual mispronunciation of the lead character's name. Let's give the young cast a pass for being terrible actors. Let's even disregard the horrible special effects that made the characters awkwardly flail around while the elements – water, rocks, fire – did whatever they wanted. The biggest problem with "The Last Airbender" was that it was a relentlessly boring, nonsensical slog that seemed actively against entertaining anyone. Bad movies happen, but this one was a soul-sucker. Saddest of all was the post-movie stinger teasing a sequel that, after seeing this, nobody wanted.

"Devil"

To be fair, M. Night Shyamalan didn't direct "Devil," a short story about a group of random individuals stuck inside an elevator with (you guessed it) the devil. It's not even all that terrible of a movie. If he had directed it instead of merely providing the story and producing, it would've easily been his best film in the last nine years.

"Devil" earns a place on this list, however, because it was the moment that Shyamalan's name was provably a burden rather than a blessing. I think we all remember sitting in a theater, seeing the trailer, thinking it didn't look half bad and then seeing M. Night's name pop up on screen and losing all interest. I recall audience members loudly laughing and groaning when they saw his credit. His name alone almost managed to sink a movie before it even came out. No wonder Sony Pictures is keeping his role on "After Earth" such a secret.

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