I am eternally fascinated by the career of M. Night Shyamalan. After bursting on the scene with The Sixth Sense nearly 20 years ago, the man went on to gain an incredibly rare status amongst his directing brethren: actual name recognition! He’s one of the few directors who many people outside Film Twitter can name — up there with Spielberg, Scorsese, and Tarantino. But unlike those other directors, Shyamalan’s brand can probably be described more as “infamous” than famous, especially in recent years. The man went from the New Spielberg to a laughing stock…literally.
And well his fall from grace is, in some accord, deserved (his movies post Signs are all dire to varying degrees), I still can’t help but feel pretty bad for the guy. He went from being a huge up-and-coming talent, the next big thing in the world of Hollywood, to an absolute joke amongst critics, audiences, and his peers. It’s the classic Hollywood rise-and-fall, played out in slow motion over a twenty year period. But right when all things seemed over for Shyamalan, and he delivered for the first time something Hollywood would not allow (a legitimate box office bomb in the form of After Earth), Shyamalan attempted what few failed artists can surmount: an honest-to-goodness comeback.
And it wasn’t a sudden comeback either: Shyamalan spent years revitalizing his public image, first doing so with the surprisingly solid The Visit back in 2015. It was a return to low-budget roots for the director, and its nature as a sort of pallet cleanser for the director was very much apparent. It was a movie he seemed obliged to make to get even an ounce of his creative juices flowing again, and it turned out to be a pretty fun little comedy/horror movie to boot.
After some decent television work developing and directing Wayward Pines, Shyamalan came roaring back to life with another low budget delight, 2017’s Split. It was a film that was thrilling, funny, well crafted, and genuinely exciting. Basically, it was something we hadn’t seen from the man in damn near 15 years, and audiences took notice. On the backing of a bravado post credit scene, linking the film to his previous cult classic Unbreakable, response to the movie was incredibly promising. And remember that whole thing about Shyamalan’s Hollywood clout running out because he made a bomb? Well, Split, off a $9 million budget, made $238 million — making it a massive, massive hit. A good movie AND a hugely successful one? Yup, Shyamalan was back, and as a huge fan of his first three features, I couldn’t have been happier for him.
Now we stand a mere five days away from the release of Glass, Shyamalan’s newest feature. As a sequel to his current hit Split, and one of his past hits, Unbreakable, it serves as pretty much a crescendo for the entire man’s career. One of those “everything has been leading up to this” moments those voiceover guys are always talking about in the commercial. Glass was — had to be — the thing that solidified the Shyamalanassaince.
…And he whiffed it. Goddamn it, he fucking whiffed it.
That’s at least according to the first reviews for the film, which were released Wednesday following the lift of the film’s press embargo. To say they were incredibly mixed is an understatement. Here’s just a sampling of some of the notable ones:
‘Glass’ Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Grounded Superhero Movie Is the Biggest Disappointment of His Career
I don’t say this often because I’m not a character in an early 90’s sitcom, but…ouch-a-rooney. Those are not pretty reviews, and are a direct return back to the critical dragging that was unleashed upon films like Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. And though it would be easy to cry “Well, the critics are wrong!” here (as people on the internet often do, bafflingly)…they weren’t wrong with those last three. They were all terrible. And with Shyamalan’s track record, I’m unfortunately going to have to take the critic’s side here: by all accounts, Glass is an excruciating disappointment. And, man…what a fucking bummer.
Of course, I have yet to see film myself (I’m not special like all those other film journalists), and I remain somewhat hopeful I’ll come out on the positive side of things. But, at this point, it’s undeniable that this whole thing has put a massive dent in the pent up anticipation for the film. Since Split, it’s been a solid two years of anticipation from Shyamalan apologists like myself: we finally got the sequel we spent a decade asking for and, even better, it came in a way that seemed unique, fresh, and necessary. It wasn’t just a last ditch effort for Shyamalan to gain some clout back from his former fans. He did the work, guys! But like a drug addict who was on the op-and-up, only to suffer an insurmountable relapse, Shyamalan has fallen once more. He was supposed to be our Timothee Chalamat — our Beautiful Boy. And now we’re all very, very sad Steve Carrell.
Because, on a personal note? This has massively curbed my enthusiasm for Glass which, up until this point, was pretty sky high. I really had faith in the movie — naively, I admit — and my hype was frankly off the charts for it. I’m currently in the process of writing up my list of most anticipated films of 2019 (yeah, yeah, I’m late, whatever), and let’s just say Glass had a very high ranking amongst that list. Emphasis on the had — as much as I want to see the film still, I just can’t get excited for it like I was before the negative reviews. And I doubt I’m the only one either; this really puts a damper on the pre-release hype, as you would expect.
On my planned path to MAXIMUM HYPE, I just got done re-watching Unbreakable in the lead up of Glass‘s release. And guess what? That movie still fucking rocks. It’s slow and contemplative and weird, but it manages to engross me with every single frame. And just seeing it again made me slightly more optimistic for Glass, if anything to see these characters again. But in the back of my mind, that voice was still being cautious: “it’s going to be a disappointment. It’s very bad, apparently. DON’T. GET. EXCITED.” That voice is probably right…but also a fucking buzzkill.
And the saddest thing of all, to me, is that it seemed no one really saw it coming. Usually when a film is going to be poorly received by critics, press releases are held very close to the film’s opening weekend. You don’t want bad word-of-mouth to sour the launch, so you cut off as many people from seeing it as you possibly can. And yet, Glass screened almost two weeks earlier for critics: usually, a sign that the people involved imagined that it would be, at the very least, tolerated. Hell, when I first saw Film Twitter commenting about the press screenings, I got exciting, thinking that Universal and Shyamalan probably imagined the film was going to get great reception, and wanted to ride that buzz into the film’s launch. I mean, you wouldn’t set up a series marathon across the country a week before the film’s domestic release if you didn’t have faith people would respond well to it…right?
That’s my thinking at least, which leads to a pretty depressing conclusion: the poor response is blindsiding everyone involved. They screened the movie early because, generally, they thought that people were going to end up liking it. The fact that a majority didn’t (and, even worse, some outright despised it) probably came as something of a sneak attack. And for a director whose probably experienced that experience MANY times in his career (for better or worse, Shyamalan seemed to buy into his own hype there pretty bad for a while), for it to happen to him again right on the cusp of his grand return is probably the harshest sting of all. Or in Simpson meme:
There’s a reason why so many movies are about underdogs: everybody loves them. To see a character rise up from the bottom and make it to the top is one of the most common — yet satisfying — forms of storytelling. Even more satisfying is the “comeback kid,” someone who manages to rise from the bottom, fall from the top, and rise up yet again. It’s inspiring to know that, despite our failures, we can still succeed — and we love to see that narrative play out. But this is no movie: this is real life, and things don’t always turn out as we want them to in real life. Rocky gets knocked out in the first round. The Slumdog Millionaire beefs it on Question #1. Daniel-San gets his ass handed to him instantly. And M. Night Shyamalan makes yet another bad movie. For as much as the characters in his movies might be Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan sure as hell isn’t.
Also published on Medium.