Shyamalan, M Night

Tagged: Film | People

(1970-    ) US filmmaker, born in India to Philadelphia-based parents; the city and environs serve as settings for most of his films. His first feature Praying with Anger (1992) explored aspects of his Indian-American identity; his second, Wide Awake (1998), emerged from a brief flirtation with family comedy which also saw work on the screenplay for Stuart Little (1999). He came to wider attention that year with his third feature as writer-director, The Sixth Sense (1999), a ghost story with a thumping twist, which proved a major international hit and reinvigorated its genre commercially with sometimes superior imitations; its screenplay won a 1999 Nebula, and Shyamalan swiftly reteamed with its star, Bruce Willis, for the Superpower drama Unbreakable (2000). This was followed by his most interesting film to date, the atmospheric Signs (2002), essentially a rural version of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) in which the actual Aliens and their Invasion are kept unsettlingly offscreen, and the flimsier but finely-realized The Village (2004), a tale of Conceptual Breakthrough in which an isolated preindustrial community of indeterminate epoch proves to be a Keep resulting from a decades-long experiment in contained living.

By now a filmmaker with considerable leverage, he fell out with Disney over the deeply eccentric personal project Lady in the Water (2006), in which the ensemble cast of an apartment building react to the materialization of an interdimensional water-nymph; though very finely directed, its bizarre scenario (originating in a bedtime story for his daughters) failed to connect with audiences, and from this point Shyamalan's star wobbled. The Happening (2008) was a critically reviled, though still modestly successful, Ecological disaster movie in which plant life wreaks an apocalyptic revenge on humanity. A major departure from these intimately budgeted and actorly original fantasies was The Last Airbender (2010), an expansive live-action epic adapted from the first season of the US Anime Avatar: The Last Airbender and retitled after a clash with Avatar (2009); derided by critics for its manifold ineptitudes in narrative and performances, it nevertheless has a strikingly epic sense of bold imaginative incoherence, and did well enough internationally for sequels to be put into development. More recently he has established a company to produce versions by other hands of Shyamalan-originated treatments: the first of these was 2010's Devil, a supernatural twist-thriller about a group of characters trapped in a lift with the devil. The poorly received After Earth (2013), aimed at a prospective franchise, marked a move into big interplanetary sf, and was his first film from another person's screenplay.

Shyamalan's highly controlling directorial signature is most evident in a fondness for claustrophobic thrillers centring on isolated groups, bereaved patriarchs, and contained worlds atmospherically bordered by the unknown; artful exploration of the grammar and tropes of Horror film in other fantasy genres; a thematization of storytelling, often extending to elaborate imaginary Mythologies; strong use of stillness in image, sound, and performance; and occasionally intrusive personal cameos. A striking director but an erratic writer, he is somewhat unfairly seen as more hedgehog than fox, overreliant on big twists, forced suspense, and James Newton Howard's deftly manipulative scoring. But though his storylines are all situated on the silly spectrum and his themes portentously vapid, he is a risk-taking fantasist with an often unexpectedly sound commercial touch who fails at least as interestingly as he succeeds. [NL]

Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan

born Pondicherry, India: 6 August 1970

died

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