Hard times at the box office have left M Night Shyamalan desperate for a hit. Kevin Maher considers what may be his last chance at a comeback.
The poster says it all. A deserted road, strewn with upturned vehicles, rises to meet the ominous, looming Heavens – here darkly oppressive and pregnant with destructive potential. This tantalising “one sheet” is advertising The Happening, a new film from M Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense. The quasi-religious symbolism, nonetheless, is entirely appropriate. For as the movie’s Friday June 13th release date approaches, Shyamalan himself must surely be staring skyward and hoping for Divine assistance with this one?
The film, a moody mainstream thriller with supernatural overtones, arrives after six previous moody mainstream thrillers with supernatural overtones. Which would be good news if the preceding movies had all been $650 million box office behemoths like The Sixth Sense.
Unfortunately The Happening is following Shyamalan's last two hugely ignominious efforts, The Village and Lady in the Water. The former movie was critically panned and commercially disappointing. While the contemporary fairytale Lady in the Water was an outright fiasco, costing $140 million in production and marketing, and earning a paltry $70 million worldwide.
Furthermore the critical establishment, which had now declared Shyamalan a one-trick pony, were soon joined by the industry itself in Michael Bamberger's book The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. In it Bamberger described Shyamalan as a thin-skinned egomaniac who broke all ties with Disney when then president Nina Jacobson raised some legitimate queries about his Lady in the Water script – including Shyamalan's hubristic decision to cast himself as the second lead (opposite Paul Giamatti), playing an unsung genius writer.
On the eve of Lady in the Water's disastrous release, a top Hollywood agent spoke anonymously to the Los Angeles Daily News, claming: "Even for Hollywood, this guy's petulance and ego are astounding, and there is a general feeling that it has swallowed him whole. People want to see this guy humbled."
It was a spectacular fall from grace. This was a man who was paid a record $5 million for his script to the The Sixth Sense follow-up Unbreakable, and then another $5 million to direct it. At the time Shyamalan, then 29 and living in Philadelphia with his wife and former teenage sweetheart Bhavna said, "The money isn't important on its own. It's important for what it says. It says you are the highest, the best at what you do." Later, when the critics became disenchanted he told Newsweek that he didn't make movies for the critics, but for "the collective soul".
And yet, the tragedy of Shyamalan's creative disintegration is that beneath the ego there lies a filmmaker of prodigious talent. He is a director who started making movies at the age of 12 on his father's 8mm camera. His parents were both Indian doctors, living in the US, who went back to Pondicherry for his birth, and then returned with him to Pennsylvania five weeks later. They did this to secure their son citizenship, according to an early Shyamalan interview.
Shyamalan grew up in the affluent town of Conshohocken, near Philadelphia. He attended a private Catholic school, and much has been made about how the confluence of a Hindu home-life and a Catholic school-life produced a filmmaker so obsessed with spirituality.
By the time he was 17 Shyamalan had made 45 short films, and was already submitting self-penned feature scripts to Hollywood studios. After graduating from New York University he made his debut feature, 1992's Praying With Anger, in which he himself starred as an Indian American who returns to the motherland for enlightenment. His next feature was Wide Awake, made for Harvey Weinstein's then fledgling company Miramax. Again, it focused on the non-corporeal, and featured a young boy (Joseph Cross) searching for God in the face of his grandfather's death.
By the time his script for The Sixth Sense was ready Shyamalan was starting to sense his own greatness. "I know it sounds weird," he said at the time, "but I decided I was going to write the greatest script and everything was going to change."
The subsequent change in Shyamalan, from mini-Spielberg to blockbusting auteur egomaniac, has in time become a cautionary tale. He blamed the failure of The Village on the fact that it was, unlike his three previous movies, devoid of faith. However, most critics just saw a director trapped in his own formula.
And yet, undeniable in Shyamalan's movies is the hand of an artist who is in total control of the screen, and utterly at ease with the language of film – think of the shiny door knob close-up in The Sixth Sense, or the wonderful slow pans back and forth to Bruce Willis's face just before the opening crash in Unbreakable. Throughout his oeuvre, his instinctive skill is never in question.
Which is why The Happening is so crucial to Shyamalan's future. The film deals with a dreaded global "event", possibly environmental, that starts to wipe out all of humanity, except Mark Wahlberg. It hints, as you'd expect, at matters of faith. "There are forces at work beyond our understanding," says Wahlberg, softly softly, in the movie's trailer.
It is a movie that will either begin the second chapter of Shyamalan's career, or terminate it altogether. Because if it is another commercial failure, and a critical dud, it will inevitably mean the end for its director, with or without God's help.
Kevin Maher writes about film for the Times and Esquire