This M. Night Shyamalan article contains spoilers.
You are currently experiencing the Shyamalanaissance, which is not some kind of B-movie supernatural occurrence, but the return of M. Night Shyamalan to the forefront of filmmaking. After a few big budget flops, this cult-favorite director went back to his low-budget roots for the 2015 found-footage film The Visit, an excellent thriller with a twist that will undoubtedly remind movie viewers of his earlier thriller masterpieces, such as The Sixth Sense and Signs. Since then, Shyamalan has released the surprising slasher film Split and the Unbreakable superhero sequel, Glass, which showcase the director at his very best and most ambitious
Not many directors boast as many memorable screen moments as Shyamalan and fewer still continue to put out such consistently enjoyable work after so many years of captivating audiences. Some might say that The Sixth Sense was peak Shyamalan, but to those people, we say the best is still yet to come from this beloved director.
As for the movies Shyamalan has already gifted us, while there are definitely some questionable entries in his filmography, there are plenty of great ones too. Some of these movies lean on the supernatural and others are modern takes on classic sci-fi tropes from the ’50s. Either way, when looking back at his films, you definitely come up with some real gems. So we decided to rank the films from worst to best to see what’s what.
Hardcore Shyamalan fans will undoubtedly notice that we’ve omitted the director’s first film, Praying with Anger, from 1992. In the film, a young Indian American (played by Shyamalan) visits India as a foreign exchange college student to rediscover his faith and culture. The reason we’ve not included the film on the list is simple: Praying with Anger never got a wide release and was mostly shown at festivals. Therefore, we haven’t seen it.
12. The Last Airbender (2010)
One day, perhaps Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender may become a cult classic, but right now, it’s pretty much the worst movie the director has ever made. Shyamalan is clearly out of his comfort zone here, directing a film for a much younger audience that is expecting an epic fantasy adventure. The result could be called an insult to the source material, Nickelodeon’s popular anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender, but Shyamalan’s intention with this project was clearly to challenge himself.
The Last Airbender‘s story is a bit complicated, but here’s a short summary: Aang, the titular last airbender, is a twelve-year-old boy who must stop the Fire Nation from conquering the other nations and bring peace to the land. There’s a lot of backstory and plot in the anime series and Shyamalan makes the mistake of trying to distill all that into one movie. Interestingly enough, the project was originally envisioned as a trilogy of films. Spreading the plot a bit more or omitting some things entirely might have helped the first (and only) film in this trilogy along.
Although Shyamalan worked closely with Industrial Light and Magic, this film suffers greatly in the visual effects department. Maybe The Last Airbender is a victim of the times, coming only a few months after the graphically superb Avatar from James Cameron. That said, the lighting in the film is inexcusable by any standard. Many scenes just unbearably dark.
The casting is pretty terrible as well, largely made up of unknown child actors whom you probably haven’t seen in many other things. Later credits do include Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers, and The Twilight Saga. Take from that what you will.
The Last Airbender was universally panned by critics as well as Shyamalan and Avatar fans. That said, it is currently Nickelodeon’s third highest-grossing film of all time after earning almost $320 million worldwide, easily making back its $150 million budget. But even its box office isn’t enough to save this unfortunate movie.
11. After Earth (2013)
After Earth was an underdog from the start. Although it starred big names—Will Smith and his son, Jaden—it followed Shyamalan’s first attempt at an epic blockbuster, The Last Airbender, which is bad enough to put any follow-up in the loser column. Unfortunately, After Earth is further evidence that Shyamalan is not very good at directing films with big budgets.
In the film, Will (Cypher) and Jaden (Kitai) are also a father and son duo that crash land on a quarantined Earth many years into the future. Since Cypher has been injured in the crash, Kitai must venture out into the wilderness alone to find a beacon with which to signal a rescue ship. That’s all good and well except the script, which Shyamalan wrote with Gary Whitta (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), is full of inconsistencies and plot holes.
This is further complicated by the fact that Will Smith is pretty much out of the action for most of the film, while Jaden, a much weaker actor, has to carry most of the scenes. Not a particularly great choice when you have Will Smith’s star power in your movie.
The poor acting and writing unfortunately put After Earth very close to the bottom.
10. Wide Awake (1998)
It’s strange to think that Shyamalan’s first two directorial efforts weren’t steeped in the supernatural or sci-fi genres. While Praying with Anger could be described as a spiritual drama, Wide Awake is the director’s only attempt at a dramedy. And the result is…okay. In other words, it’s not the underrated Shyamalan movie you need to watch. If people don’t quite remember it nowadays, it’s because the director has made far better (and worse) movies in the years since. Still, this film is noteworthy for being Shyamalan’s first wide release.
Starring Denis Leary, child actor Joseph Cross, and Rosie O’Donnell, Wide Awake is about a ten-year-old boy named Josh, who’s looking for an answer to life and death after his beloved grandfather passes away. With the help of his best friend and the baseball-loving nun, played by O’Donnell, Josh examines his spirituality during fifth grade.
There really isn’t much to write home about in this instance. It exists. But there’s no trace of the Shyamalan we know and love in this film.
9. Lady in the Water (2006)
Maybe if this film had been a Twilight Zone episode instead—the last episode of the 1959 series, “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” absolutely comes to mind—it would have gone over better. But the main problem with Lady in the Water is that it doesn’t really make all that much sense.
Shyamalan’s attempt at creating a modern fairy tale isn’t quite as sweet as the story that influenced the film in the first place. While trying to explain to his daughter what happened in their pool at night while they slept, Shyamalan came up with the bedtime story that eventually turned into Lady in the Water. It should have probably stayed a bedtime story, though.
Not even Paul Giamatti or Bryce Dallas Howard can save this film from being a confusing bore. Giamatti plays Cleveland, a handyman at a Philadelphia apartment complex who discovers a water nymph named Story, played by Howard, in the residential swimming pool. Story is trying to get back to her watery kingdom but is being hunted by a wolf-like creature. Cleveland and other residents of the complex, including a character played by Shyamalan himself, must help Story defeat the wolf thing so that she can back home.
Really, it’s a lot less interesting than it sounds. This film might only hold up with the most hardcore Shyamalan fans willing to follow him to all of his original supernatural worlds. But unlike the writer Shyamalan plays — one destined to change the world with his work — Lady in the Water isn’t anywhere near that memorable.
8. The Happening (2008)
We have a soft spot for this movie, if only for its 1950s monster movie sensibility. The concept behind The Happening isn’t awful: nature has decided to defend itself after years of abuse at the hands of humanity. It’s an ecofiction disaster film that would have fared much better had the script not played out like a comedy and the acting was better.
But Shyamalan is shooting for a B-movie here and that’s exactly what he delivers. A movie at once scary and shocking, but also surprisingly self-aware. Mark Wahlberg, in one of his worst roles, plays a science teacher who uses the scientific method throughout the film to figure out what the hell is going on. Zooey Deschanel plays his flighty wife, whom Wahlberg’s best friend, played by a self-serious John Leguizamo, doesn’t like very much.
There are several horror sequences in the film, including one in rural Pennsylvania that’s actually a bit disturbing. Also notable is the film’s gore: there’s a lot of it. One guy willingly lets himself get mauled by lions at a zoo, a farmer lies down in front of an industrial lawn mower, and an old recluse smashes her head through a row of glass windows. These scenes are grim as hell, but it’s also delightful to watch a more unchained Shyamalan, who so often skips the gore and action.
We think The Happening might ultimately be Shyamalan’s most underrated film.
7. Glass (2019)
Glass is the culmination of a superhero epic that took Shyamalan almost 20 years to tell. Starring characters first played by Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy in Unbreakable and Split, the third part of the Eastrail 177 Trilogy is the story of what happens when “gifted” humans accept who they are and the powers they possess.
Part excellent Arkham Asylum movie, part mediocre X-Men film, Glass is 100-percent Shyamalan swinging for the fences and proving that this comic-book-inspired tale deserved to be told, even after Unbreakable‘s tepid reception two decades prior. That the movie’s insane third act can’t quite stick the landing doesn’t negate the fun psychological thriller that came before it.
In Glass, we reunite with David Dunn (Willis), now protecting the streets of Philadelphia as a vigilante called the Overseer. After the events of Split, he’s now on a mission to capture the Horde (an awe-inspiring McAvoy), a man with 24 different personalities, including a monstrous serial killer known as the Beast. When Overseer and the Beast are captured by law enforcement, they’re sent to a mental institution and locked up with the greatest villain of all: Elijah Price (Jackson) aka Mr. Glass.
What proceeds is a trippy movie about the nature of madness and humanity’s right to evolve beyond its physical constraints. At it’s very best, Glass questions whether these seemingly superpowered characters are actually who they think they are and if the audience is complicit in their delusion.
6. The Village (2004)
The Village is where many fans and critics say Shyamalan started to derail a bit, the twists turning into gimmicks and the writing growing self-indulgent. That said, The Village features an enjoyable bit of world-building, a nice helping of horror, and instills tons of paranoia in its audience. Those are the ingredients for a successful Shyamalan movie.
The village in question, the very rural and isolated Covington, is stalked by mysterious creatures that live in the woods beyond as constant tormentors. No one in the village has seen the outside world, as they’re too afraid to venture out past the borders of the town for fear that the monsters will get them.
Fortunately, we’re able to see what’s in those woods, thanks to Bryce Dallas Howard’s Ivy, who must find medicine for her wounded beau, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix). What’s waiting on the other side of the forest? The twist might feel cheap to some, but it’s definitely unforgettable.
The film is enjoyable overall, and Adrien Brody is also absolutely brilliant in this movie. Overall, you could do much worse than The Village, as you’ve probably already gathered from reading this list.
5. The Visit (2015)
The Visit is an excellent little found footage movie about two teenagers, aspiring filmmaker Becca and hilarious rapper Tyler, who go visit their grandparents for the first time ever. They soon discover that Nana and Pop Pop are not at all like what they expected.
While the film does climax with a signature Shyamalanian twist, what’s impressive about The Visit is the dread built throughout. Shyamalan keeps fans guessing about Nana and Pop Pop, as the film teeters between the story of two good people slowly losing their minds and something much more sinister.
Shyamalan’s shaky camera gives us claustrophobic chase scenes through a crawlspace, something going bump in the night just outside the kids’ bedroom, and a horrific descent into a forbidden basement. There’s also a fair amount of gross-out to be found in the film, if you’re into that sort of thing, including a couple of scenes involving adult diapers…
This was Shyamalan’s first foray into horror in a few years, and it paid off for the director. The film, which was made for $5 million and made over $98 million globally, ensuring Shyamalan’s future as a legendary director. No one’s pushing this guy to straight-to-DVD productions just yet.
4. Unbreakable (2000)
Shyamalan followed-up The Sixth Sense, his first major success, with a superhero film, and you’re in for a treat because Unbreakable is pretty great. This movie quietly tiptoed its way between other early 2000s superhero movies like X-Men and Spider-Man, and it’s probably second best of the three, not only because of Bruce Willis’ protagonist but the movie’s villain.
Samuel L. Jackson elevates the movie with one of his best performances as Elijah Price, a comic book-obsessed man with a rare disease that causes his bones to break easily. Elijah’s condition has left him quite weak and depressed, but he finds new life in Willis’ David Dunn, who is the only survivor of a terrible train crash. When David miraculously walks out of the accident without a scratch, Elijah becomes convinced that David is superhuman, perhaps even the world’s first superhero, an idol Elijah has been searching for his entire life.
What happens from there is quite exciting. Shyamalan does a great job of deconstructing the superhero myth and telling a fantastic and unique origin story in the process. Heck, Unbreakable is still better than some of today’s more conventional superhero fare.
3. Split (2016)
Split is a very special movie, Shyamalan’s best since his resurgence in 2015. It’s a story about cycles of abuse, a decidedly darker character piece than most of his other movies. Split is genre-defying, captivating, and carries an emotional depth that sets up James McAvoy for one of his very best roles.
At the center of Split is Kevin Wendell Crumb, played with relish by a shape-shifting McAvoy who proves here that he can play any character you throw at him, a not-so-traditional slasher who kidnaps three girls in a parking lot, including Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey Cooke. While the movie is initially pitched to audiences as a house of horrors slasher flick, there’s something much more interesting going on underneath the service.
There’s more to Kevin and Casey than meets the eye, and Shyamalan takes his time to show us the patterns of abuse that have brought both of these characters to this moment, the darkest either has ever experienced. Split may have Shyamalan’s very best character work to date, and you’ll have a hard time not caring for both hero and villain by the time the credits roll.
This movie will surprise you until the very end.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense is by far Shyamalan’s most famous and most quotable film. This supernatural thriller starring Bruce Willis and the talented Haley Joel Osment came only a year after the director’s comedy-drama Wide Awakeand saw a clear shift in Shyamalan’s aesthetic. This movie would define the director’s style for the next decade, as Shyamalan often delved in the supernatural and twist endings. Out of his supernatural films, The Sixth Sense remains Shyamalan’s very best, and it was even nominated for six Academy Awards.
The Sixth Sense tells the story of a psychiatrist who, after suffering his own personal trauma, decides to treat a boy who has the ability to see dead people. Thanks to a stunning performance by Osment, we’re treated to a genuinely scary story that’s also a tale of redemption for Willis’ character, as he helps the boy shed his fear of his incredible gift and instead use it to help the dead.
The movie offered up the original Shyamalan twist ending, one that fans didn’t see coming but was right in front of their faces the entire time. Many call this Shyamalan’s magnum opus, but we consider a later science fiction film to be just a bit better…
1. Signs (2002)
Signs is the perfect combination of everything that makes a great Shyamalan film: supernatural horror, strong B-movie sci-fi, spirituality, family drama, and creepy children. All of these ingredients come together perfectly in this follow-up to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
Although the plot is on a much more epic scale than we’d seen from Shyamalan until this point—a hostile alien invasion of Earth—the story is actually really intimate, dealing with the Hess family, whose members are suffering from a crisis of faith. Graham, played by Mel Gibson, is a former priest who has left the cloth after the death of his wife. He lives on a farm with his brother, former local baseball star Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), who’s obsessed with the quality of her drinking water.
When crop circles appear on their land and elsewhere around the world, the family begins to grow more paranoid about a possible alien threat. And when that threat is confirmed in one of the scariest sequences ever made about aliens, all hell breaks loose, as the family prepares to defend itself from the invaders.
What follows is thrilling, as the entire Hess family shelters itself in an isolated farmhouse when the aliens finally touch down. The wait ’til morning is unbearable. The end result has more to do with faith and less to do with beings from another planet than originally presented, and Signs is all the better for it.