The once-celebrated director's reputation is at an all-time low after The Last Airbender, but will his next project redeem him?
Will M Night Shyamalan's next film help to reignite his career?
Just weeks after being named Worst Director at Hollywood's most undesirable awards ceremony the Golden Raspberries, M Night Shyamalan has announced his return. But rather than being demoted to the B-movie circuit, the filmmaker's next project will see him direct a bona fide A-lister, Will Smith, as well as the actor's son, Jaden.
The Indian-American filmmaker, known for his love of twist endings, was once the toast of Tinsel Town as the writer-director behind The Sixth Sense, but in recent years he has suffered a dramatic career decline with a string of critically reviled movies. Things seemed to reach a new low last year with the $150 million (Dh550.9m) kids fantasy, The Last Airbender, which scooped no fewer than five Razzies.
According to Columbia Pictures, the currently untitled Smith-starring science-fiction film is set "1,000 years into the future, a young boy navigates an abandoned and sometimes scary Earth to save himself and his estranged father after their ship crashes".
Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith will also produce the film.
Jaden, who appeared in last year's Karate Kid remake, has co-starred with his father once before, in 2006's Oscar-nominated The Pursuit of Happyness. Shyamalan, who has co-written the screenplay for the forthcoming film with Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), said "the chance to make a scary, science-fiction film starring Jaden and Will is my dream project."
Born in Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry), India, before moving to Pennsylvania as a child, Manoj Nelliattu Shyamalan was reared on the films of Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. "I was around 10 or 11 when Spielberg made all those amazing movies like ET, where a child has a belief and he makes adults believe in it," he told Time Out.
Adept with a High-8 camera from a young age, Shyamalan wrote, directed and edited more than 45 short films in his early years. The filmmaker released his first feature, Praying With Anger (in which he also played the story's protagonist) while still at New York University. His second outing as writer-director, the 1998 Rosie O'Donnell comedy-drama Wide Awake, passed largely unnoticed.
Everything changed the following year however, upon the release of The Sixth Sense. The supernatural thriller, starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and became famous for the line, "I see dead people."
While its successors, 2000's lo-fi superhero tale Unbreakable and 2002's philosophical alien invasion flick Signs, were also well-received, critics and audiences began to complain that Shyamalan's need to deliver jaw-dropping twists was making his stories feel increasingly contrived.
Within just a few years, the director had made 2004's quasi-period drama The Village; the 2006 fairy tale Lady in the Water and 2008's laughable disaster movie The Happening. All were panned and Shyamalan's stock fell dramatically. Homer Simpson said it best in an episode of the satirical television show, when he asked: "Who could my father be? Moleman? Mr. Burns? (gasps) M Night Shyamalan? That would be a twist worthy of his increasingly lousy films!"
But it was 2010's The Last Airbender that many believed would assign Shyamalan to the directorial scrap-heap for good. Adapted from a beloved Nickelodeon animated series about a world where different races of humans have the power to manipulate the elements, the film was criticised for its poor visual effects and 3D retrofitting. It was also condemned for the casting of white actors as the story's Asian protagonists.
"The Last Airbender is an agonising experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented," wrote the Chicago Sun-Times critic, Roger Ebert. "The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that."
Ebert also expressed hope that the film's title would prove to be prescient.
So sullied had the Shyamalan brand become by the end of last summer, even the mention of his name had begun to cause negative reactions among prospective audience members. Trailers for the film Devil (based on a story created by the filmmaker, but not written or directed by him) featured the tagline "from the mind of M Night Shyamalan". The announcement reportedly provoked groaning and jeering in cinemas around the world.
Knowing that in just under 10 years the filmmaker has gone from one of Hollywood's brightest hopes to someone whose films are at best contrived and at worst inept, Smith's decision to entrust to Shyamalan not only his career, but also that of his son, must be seen as an unusual one.
"Why does he keep getting such high-profile work?" asked Simon Brew of the movie website Den of Geek. "The answer: he makes cash. It's that simple.
"In spite of the reviews that the likes of The Last Airbender, The Village and The Happening attracted, each has made money. Lots of money in some cases. Only Lady in the Water could really be classed in any sense as an outright commercial disappointment," he added.
Despite the derision of critics, The Last Airbender took almost $320m at the worldwide box office, more than twice the film's production budget. Perhaps it is simply Shyamalan's ability to deliver movies capable of packing cinemas that inspires Smith and the like - even if there are more empty seats towards the end of the film than there are at the beginning.
But maybe the down-on-his-luck director deserves one last chance. After all, the greatest criticism of The Last Airbender was levelled at the film's poor special effects and use of 3D. Shyamalan should rightly shoulder most of the burden for this, but perhaps not all.
What's more, Smith's reportedly hands-on approach to producing could help circumvent some of Shyamalan's bad habits and maybe even help to deliver the career turnaround he so badly needs.
Now that would be a twist worth waiting for.
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