It would be difficult to summarize the aesthetic of M. Night Shyamalan’s work of the past decade in one fell swoop, but there are a number of characteristics typical of his preoccupations which we can see as forming a link. He makes clear distinctions between success and failure, greatness and mediocrity, and the internal and external drives that determine our bearings in life. Finding one’s purpose is frequently central to his films; they’re rites of passage which demand the individual involved to invest a great deal of energy into overcoming any psychological, spiritual, or ontological obstacles that stand in the way of them achieving a goal or newfound sense of identity. His films illustrate physiological and metaphysical transformations, though these aren’t always positive changes. Indeed, a darkness surrounds his protagonists — a constant force threatening to consume and envelope them if they lose their footing along the way.
Both Shyamalan’s first and last films of the decade feature quasi-fascist entities as their villains, signifying a totalized expression of their operators’ desires to repress the powers of the inhabitants under their thumb. In 2010’s The Last Airbender, these powers are intrinsically connected to their space and display a certain kind of rootedness (“The earth below your feet is an extension of who you are”) which emphasizes a sense of belonging in all the characters — with the exception of the Avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer). His powers are not limited to a singular expression of an element, being capable of multiplicity and therefore unification (his tribe being polyethnic, as opposed to the apparent monoethnicity of the others, further proves this). It is Aang’s destiny to rebel against all the things that are encapsulated within the Fire Nation – repression of both the individual and community. It’s no coincidence, then, that Zuko (Dev Patel) — the exiled Fire Nation prince hell-bent on restoring his honor by capturing the Avatar — is motivated by his neurotic remembrances of his inadequacies and his failure to be what his father demands him to be, feelings that frequently weigh him down.
His films illustrate physiological and metaphysical transformations, though these aren’t always positive changes.
There are a number of antagonists in The Last Airbender, but Zuko remains the most interesting for the oppositional function he serves; his quest to prove himself acts in harsh contrast to the motives of the protagonists who already possess their identities and are now forced to fight as defenders of universal unity and stability. This is where we can see Shyamalan delineating definite distinctions between the just and unjust; Zuko’s concern for his status and self is futile in the face of the messianic Avatar, who must ultimately become accepting of his greater responsibility and destiny to achieve a selfless dedication. Where the Fire Nation is corrupted by their lust to conquer, and by their belief in mortal power (intending to become gods in the process), the other tribes are freed by the knowledge that they were ordained for a specific, good purpose — even if they are merely auxiliaries for Aang.
Where The Last Airbender locates its spirituality in discussions of ‘becoming’ and self-realization, 2013’s After Earth turns psychological. Confrontation is the key word here and is applied in equal parts to both the psyche’s subjugation of the body and the will’s reactions to external stimuli. After Earth is a film that it in some part about overcoming the limitations placed upon you by others, of bridling undesirable instincts, and of tackling the past of the species that has compiled into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and turned our very world wholly bellicose. The psychologies of the central father and son characters — Cypher (Will Smith) and Kitai (Jaden Smith), respectively — unravel as the narrative progresses, and as flashbacks relay the events which contributed to the development of their separate instincts and natures. Kitai’s memory of watching his sister being killed by an Ursas (an advanced yet blind predatory creature that can detect the pheromones released by fear) hangs over his head, and acts as the capacitor motivating his quest. In addition to this, Cypher’s undefined and overwhelming expectations of his son — no doubt exacerbated by the loss of his daughter — have the effect of belittling Kitai, in the sense that he can prostrate in sight of his father’s stern prowess and reputation without the belief that he can actually achieve what his father has. The space that he finds himself traversing in order to save himself and his injured father is one “evolved to kill you”; confrontation here is thus a mesh of internal and external forces in constant exertion, a seemingly indomitable rite of passage which Kitai realizes must be matched by an equally strong will to live.
However, Kitai does find one amicable encounter on this devastated earth; that being the mother bird’s reciprocal gesture of protection, who dies to save him because he defended her chicks (an action which was to no avail). She chooses to die as a result of losing her brood, ergo this offers an analogous image to Cypher’s earlier demand for his son to return, after believing Kitai was incapable of surviving the cliff jump. These two moments slice through the stoic surface and present the parental responsibilities and instincts (some of the core tenets of After Earth) superseding an otherwise commanding and domineering nature. Cypher doesn’t want his son to die and therefore resigns his drive to one of preservation. This isn’t so much contradictory of the situation as it is revealing of the push and pull desires intrinsic to a parent’s aegis. Ultimately, Kitai is forced to continue the mission without his father’s instructions, unaware that he is indeed still watching from his vantage point. The moment of victory is duly matched with a blank-eyed Cypher, passed out from blood loss — Kitai succeeds for no one but himself. It’s control over the corporeal — the body’s response to certain phenomena, specifically — that uplifts Kitai’s psyche, transcending simple reactive mechanisms, allowing him to ‘ghost’ and defeat the one creature designed to kill what he is. We end with father saluting son; the passing of the mantle with the knowledge that everything encapsulated within the former’s role has been justly earned by the latter. As such, After Earth isn’t as concerned with realizing one’s ingrained purpose (à la The Last Airbender) as it is the struggle to attain goals, and to grow away from one’s inadequacies.
Likely because After Earth was a financial failure, for his 2015 film, Shyamalan returned to the style of horror/thriller that made his name — albeit with a newfound sense of self-reflexivity and five million dollars from a loan on his house. The Visit straddles the line between disconcerting comedy and reflexive horror, and it’s the skirmish between these cosmetic antitheses that’s indicative of much of the conflict seen throughout the film — and that plays nicely into the extemporaneous element suggested. Becca (Olivia DeJonge), as the director within the diegesis, is well-aware of her intentions with creating the film; she wishes to present the lives of two estranged grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) who are “good people,” and perhaps even sow the seeds for a reunion between her grandparents and her mother. Becca tries to make a film and make it conform to what she wishes to see, yet she finds her plans discombobulated by the erratic and seemingly nonsensical behavior of the grandparents. Her brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), can be viewed in a similar way: His OCD in relation to his personal hygiene is apparently his way of controlling things which, funnily enough, leads to his subjection to the grandpa’s incontinence.
The Visit is devilish, in its comedic register — challenging the kids to react, without falter, to the spontaneous aberrations around them, whilst also maintaining a level of conscious performance for the camera lens. Indeed, most of the characters begin to engage in performance once realizing the presence of the camera — with the exception of the grandparents. If Becca intended to make a film discovering her hitherto unseen grandparents then this is well and truly thrown into disarray by the instability of their appearances. The effects of sundowning, their general confusions/convulsions and unwillingness to answer many of Becca’s questions, present unintelligible identities, leading to Becca and Tyler simply trying to avoid them — and all the while, we watch from as restrictive a perspective as theirs. It could be said that Shyamalan is reflecting on the nature of the documentary film, and its capacity to capture spontaneity (and possibly contradiction). Of course, The Visit is also a ‘found-footage’ horror film, replete with knowing jump-scares and obfuscations within the mise en scène by objects, body parts and the decrepit yet menacing figures of the ostensible grandparents. The film starts with the details of a disconnected family; what it ends on isn’t so much about the experience with the grandparents as it is the mother coming to terms with an action deeply regretted and, accordingly, her kids finding affirmation in their now-rejuvenated family unit.
Shyamalan’s 2016 film, Split, opens with a presumption — that of the typical schoolmate perspective, denoting characteristics onto the outsider from rumors and appearances. To put it simply, the film opens in a state of normalcy; the three girls in the scene don’t even notice a stranger getting into the car. The intrusion of Kevin (James McAvoy) introduces something unseen to two of the girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and the immediate situation that arises is something which they believe they can potentially assuage, because this is the modern world and they’ve learned how to react in such a situation — with teamwork and force. But the third girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), positions herself apart from these other two; unlike them, she will find some success in mediating and understanding Kevin, whilst they rely on the strength derived from their physical connection (holding hands). Casey is different from Claire and Marcia: Her flashbacks progress in a linear fashion throughout the narrative, developing in synchronicity to the story of the present, suggesting a concomitance; they reflect, as a kind of para-textual representation of her psyche, a logical process by which we can see that trauma is the connection between her and Kevin — even if Kevin’s more malicious personalities place emphasis on suffering itself.
It’s trauma which lights a fire inside, a fire that has to be acknowledged and confronted if one is to use it for good, before it burns the whole.
To Kevin and “The Hoard” (his other personalities), suffering fractures the psyche, thus offering the hope of reformation — the hope that the whole can form again, stronger. They reason that, because the girls have never suffered, that they are necessarily unable to ‘reform,’ and thus unable to reach their full potential. But Casey already has suffered — and it’s perhaps negligent (or just plain ignorant) to suggest that the other two girls haven’t suffered in any conceivable way. This again points to the suggestion that it’s trauma which lights a fire inside, a fire that has to be acknowledged and confronted if one is to use it for good, before it burns the whole. The most savage of the personalities inside Kevin, The Beast, does not have good intentions, but the other undesirable personalities have already suppressed the parts of Kevin which fought against his ‘evolution’ — from this, we can see the triumph of the will to self-preservation at the detriment of the other more amiable aspects of Kevin (a contradiction in itself). Moreover, the cumulative belief which constitutes The Beast is fundamentally destructive to the external (fatalistic to the internal) and, at the film’s conclusion, he is shown to have freed himself — to potentially venture out to ravage as he pleases…so what is he? Dionysus? A tragic cleanser of society? If he wishes to destroy those who have not experienced trauma, then he must define the modern world as separated between those ‘purified’ by it and the virgins of this struggle, who aren’t fit for life in a world that requires multiplicity and self-overcoming in order to achieve some undefined potential (the dialectical crosscutting of the climax also appears to express this distinction, featuring the impending entrance of the beast whilst his victims struggle to break free).
Kevin can be seen as a metaphor for society in and of itself, presented with the appearance of progress (and exclaiming that this is precisely the case) and yet, in actuality, displaying the features of decay — destructive, self-contradictory, and cannibalistic, feasting on the flesh of those deemed to be normal and who are therefore expendable and lacking potential. The character of Casey, then, offsets some of the more fascistic notions wrapped up in The Beast’s desires; her scars are the embellishments of trauma, something much closer to a recognizable reality, which acts in contradistinction to the vengeful and oppressive Beast. But Casey has yet to truly deal with her trauma — and thus Split concludes with the potentiality that she may overcome that which weighs in her mind. She has seen Kevin, and she has seen The Beast — this alone gives her knowledge of what she needs to do.
Glass continues the tragic elements of its predecessors, drawing together the two antipodal ‘supermen’ of Shyamalan’s creation: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) of Unbreakable and Kevin of Split. What the film depicts is the bridling of opposites whose simple belief in themselves prove dangerous, their susceptibility to the machinations of those whose powers exist abstractly turns the appearance of self-determination and belief into fatalistic gestures forced against each other; a clash of titans who ultimately have to die because that is the path preordained for them. David and Kevin are two sides of the same coin: one destroying, one extricating. Their destinies are fused through happenstance, but brought together by the motives of humans. Trauma, and the acknowledgment of it, is of course a central theme in Split, but it is kept to the side in Glass, in favor of an ambitious political metaphor where false appearances and artificial identities manipulate those who expend their energy in the wrong direction.
Considering that the signifiers for this political metaphor are locked into a deterministic system, it can only be surmised that it’s inconsequential to pick sides — good or bad — because they only possess the appearance of opposition. The titans prove to be fragile in the face of modern institutions — institutions now emblematic of decadence, sucking the life-force of the strong in order to enforce egalitarianism as a safeguard for their continued domination. Yet David and Kevin are not alone in this narrative. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is the eponymous figure resigned to a spurious state of vegetation; he knows that (similarly to Casey at the beginning of Split) brute force is not the correct course of action, without also having the upper hand. As such, he becomes locked into a series of games that ultimately seek to prove the existence of something beyond conditioned normalcy, beyond our reckoned capabilities, and beyond a culture of techno-nihilism — the rejuvenation of the belief in man. Shyamalan inserts all of this into the most commercial genre of the times, suggesting a kind of populist intention behind its creation — akin to the film’s closing scene. But even that moment of a supposed mass phenomenon, and spiritual awakening, appears as something that would be lost on the populace. What would they even make of it? To most, the revelation would likely register as little more than a trivial novelty — the viral trend of the week.