Few directors in modern cinema are as polarizing as M. Night Shyamalan. That is largely because of the very uneven track record when it comes to the films he has made. Many of his movies are great; a few can even be considered classics. But some of them are just plain awful – and a couple is truly terrible. Yet fans continue to hold out hope that the next Shyamalan movie will be another instant classic and restore his status as one of Hollywood’s top directors.
In celebration of The Sixth Sense‘s 20th anniversary, we thought now would be the perfect time to rank every Shyamalan movie (excluding his small budget directorial debut Praying with Anger and Stuart Little — because it’s about a talking mouse). Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly…
13. The Happening (2008)
The movie that is most responsible for M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation taking a hit with critics and fans is the 2008 film The Happening. It’s about plants that decide to exact revenge on humans by releasing toxic spores into the air that cause people to suddenly commit suicide. The biggest problem with this movie is its entire premise. Once the whole thing is set-up, we’re treated to 90 minutes of people essentially running away from the wind. If this sounds weird, it’s because it is. The acting in the film by an A-list cast that includes Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel doesn’t help matters either. They spend most of the movie looking wide-eyed at the wind blowing through trees and making declarative statements such as “I am about to be sick.” The first movie by Shyamalan to be given an R rating because of the suicides depicted, this is a bad move that was savaged by critics. Rotten Tomatoes score: 18%. But perhaps Wahlberg summed it up best when he stated a few years ago: “It was a really bad movie… F**king trees, man.”
12. Lady in the Water (2006)
Another turkey, and the first of Shyamalan’s films to truely tank at the box office. The 2006 film Lady in the Water is another movie that strives for some type of deep meaning but just ends up coming off as weird and pointless. Ironically, Shyamalan has said that this movie is his most personal, as he based it off a bedtime story he used to tell his kids. Creepy. The film is about a schlep apartment building superintendent who rescues a young woman from the pool in the building he maintains, only to discover that she is a character from a bedtime story who is trying to return to her magical homeland. So he rallies the tenants in the building to protect the young stranger from evil creatures that want to keep her on Earth. As with The Happening, the premise is just too strange and lame to carry a whole film. Even the strange woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard is named “Story.” Weird. The whole thing just doesn’t add up to much. Not worth seeing.
11. After Earth (2013)
Shyamalan doesn’t get all the blame for this catastrophe. Part of the scorn deserves to be directed at Will Smith too. After all, it was Will Smith’s idea to star in this sci-fi mess with his son Jaden, who proved once and for all in this movie that he cannot act. Budgeted at $130 million, this film was about a father and son marooned on a post-apocalyptic Earth. It tanked at the North American box office but ended up posting a profit and earning $243 million worldwide thanks to filmgoers in China, who turned this movie into an overseas hit. Critics were less kind, though. Current score on Rotten Tomatoes: 11%. But nothing can do this movie justice quite like the words of The Fresh Prince himself, who told Variety magazine that After Earth was “The most painful failure of my career.” Pretty painful to the career of M. Night Shyamalan too.
10. The Last Airbender (2010)
Not a good movie, but surprisingly not the worst thing Shyamalan has ever done either. The 2010 kid-friendly film The Last Airbender was meant to be a live-action movie version of the popular anime kids show of the same name, and it did prove faithful to the television series. But the action sequences were damaged by a post-filming conversion to 3D, the direction is strange (not in a good way), the acting is atrocious, with many of the Asian stars sounding like their voices were dubbed into English, and there is way too much voice-over extrapolation in an effort to explain the plot and characters that the movie seems to have no time for. The result was yet another disappointment. Noted film critic Roger Ebert was subtle when he said of this movie “It is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of.” Ouch!
9. Glass (2019)
Shyamalan’s final installment in the Unbreakable trilogy, Glass, is by no means a bad movie but considering how long we had been waiting, many would agree the psychological superhero film was disappointingly-underwhelming and despite outstanding performances from Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy, the story lacked the unforgettable twists and turns Shamalan movies are known for. Despite its shortcomings, Glass managed to gross an impressive $247 million worldwide only a $20 million budget.
Glass stars Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Spencer Treat Clark, and Charlayne Woodard reprising their roles from Unbreakable and James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy from Split. The film also features newcomers Sarah Paulson, Adam David Thompson, and Luke Kirby.
8. Wide Awake (1998)
It’s not Citizen Kane, but M. Night Shyamalan’s first big-budget feature-length film, 1998’s Wide Awake, is okay. Not great, not even good. But okay. It’s certainly a lot better than the previous movies on this list. About a 10-year-old boy who goes in search of God after his grandfather dies, Wide Awake is a cute, family-oriented movie. It stars Rosie O’Donnell as a nun and Denis Leary as the grieving boy’s father. Interestingly, there is nothing in this movie that would suggest the future direction of Shyamalan’s films or that he is obsessed with the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. This is a competent, crowd-pleasing family film that is worth lingering on if you ever come across it while channel surfing.
7. Devil (2010)
Shyamalan didn’t technically direct the 2010 movie, Devil. However, he did write the movie and produce it, and he is on record saying he intends to direct a sequel to this decent little film about a group of people who find themselves trapped in an elevator with Satan himself. What helps this movie succeed is the fact that it has a cool premise. The story is reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode. And the small scale gives the movie a quirky, independent film vibe that works. This is one of the few decent movies that Shyamalan has helped make over the last decade. Made on a shoestring budget, the film turned a healthy profit too, grossing nearly $35 million at the box office. If nothing else, Devil proved that Shyamalan movies don’t have to be huge, big-budget spectacles to work well.
6. The Village (2004)
Okay, now we’re starting to separate the wheat from the chaff. While the 2004 film The Village is not Shyamalan’s best movie, but certainly far from his worst. It falls somewhere in the middle, which is why it occupies this spot this fitting spot on the list. With the Salem witch hunts as its guide, The Village is about the residents of the village of Covington in rural Pennsylvania, who lead a fairly quiet agricultural life thanks to an agreement they struck with the terrible creatures who lurk just outside the village’s borders. The deal is that the villagers never cross the boundaries. Naturally, the boundaries are crossed and all hell slowly breaks loose. Atmospheric and suspenseful to a point, The Village has an all-star cast that includes William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix, and Sigourney Weaver. The problem with this movie is the ending, which strains credibility. It was the end of this movie that had critics and filmgoers staring to question M. Night Shyamalan and his abilities as a storyteller. That debatable ending? Spoiler alert — the villagers are not really in the 17th Century as they believe.
5. The Visit (2015)
If, by this point, you are wondering how Shyamalan still has a career, look no further than the 2015 movie The Visit. This small, independent film saved his reputation and career. After a series of big-budget stinkers, notably 2013 After Earth disaster, Shyamalan decided to go small with this creepy good movie about two siblings who visit their strange and frightening grandparents. It’s a simple premise that is executed well and follows an independent film approach right down the line – from the competent but largely unknown cast to the low budget special effects. The film is even shot as a documentary being made by one of the kids, a la the Blair Witch Project. The whole thing works surprisingly well, and the result is a movie that helped restore some of the street creds Shyamalan had lost in recent years. With a decent score of 64% on Rotten Tomatoes and a worldwide gross of $100 million, this movie has fans hoping for the best going forward.
4. Split (2016)
After a 16-year wait, Shyamalan finally released the long-awaited Unbreakable sequel Split, starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley. Although we enjoyed Unbreakable more, McAvoy’s portrayal of Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde was so outstanding that to this day, we still don’t understand how or why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar that year. Don’t get me wrong, Casey Affleck was great in Manchester by the Sea and probably deserved the award, but the way McAvoy seamlessly switched between 23 personalities was nothing short of exceptional.
Although the film is a sequel, Shyamalan wanted to keep the mystery alive so he made the decision not to feature Bruce Willis’s cameo as David Dunn from Unbreakable until the end of the film, which we thought was a clever and allowed for McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy to shine.
3. Signs (2002)
One of the three first big-budget movies Shyamalan made, and one of his three best to date, Signs captures people’s imagination by delving into the question of what creates mysterious crop circles seen on farms around the world. Starring Mel Gibson as a reverend-turned-farmer who has lost his faith, and Joaquin Phoenix as his brother, Signs dives headfirst into alien invasion territory. Suspenseful, creepy, and full of atmosphere, the movie works great for the first two-thirds. While it falls apart a bit towards the end, and the miracle that is supposed to be its climax is not that awe-inspiring, Signs mostly holds up to scrutiny. It is by far one of the best movies Shyamalan has made so far, and it proved to be a critical and financial success for the director, earning more than $400 million at the global box office.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Before Comic-Con became a household term, Shyamalan scored a huge hit with the 2000 film Unbreakable, about an ordinary man who comes to discover he has superpowers following an accident. Starring Bruce Willis as the hero and Samuel L. Jackson as a mysterious man who owns a comic book store, Unbreakable succeeds because of the way it handles its subject matter. It slowly and quietly reveals itself to be a movie about a superhero, as it follows many of the archetypes found in traditional superhero films. The key is that the movie is grounded in the real world and regular life. There’s no spandex costume or fancy CGI. Willis plays a regular man who discovers his true potential. Moody and atmospheric, this film is one of the best-told stories Shyamalan has ever put on the screen – largely because it is more concerned with characters and telling a good story than it is with special effects. This can be considered a great film – even a modern classic. A cool superhero movie before superhero movies where cool.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
No surprise here. The Sixth Sense remains the very best film that Shyamalan has ever made. His one movie that can be called an undisputed classic. The Sixth Sense owes its success largely to one of the most surprising endings in movie history. An ending that caused a pop culture sensation when the movie was released in 1999. Audiences couldn’t believe how they had been caught off guard – especially when they realized that the “surprise ending” had been right in front of their face the whole time. Starring Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who sees dead people and Bruce Willis as the child psychologist who is trying to help him, The Sixth Sense remains an excellent movie and a modern masterpiece. It wowed critics and showed audiences the potential that Shyamalan had as a director and writer. And after hitting such a massive home run with only his second feature film, it is not surprising that M. Night Shyamalan has had trouble living up to expectations ever since.