The Sixth Sense is still awesome…twenty years later

Twenty years ago America was on the cusp of the dot-com explosion. Media and the way we digest it and, more importantly, regurgitate it, was about to change forever. It’s no wonder that 1999 is a year in which countless pop culture references were born. 1999 is the birthplace of memes. Many of the in-jokes, recurring jokes, and just plain dumb jokes you can find on the internet had origins here at the close of the last century.

Expect a whole write-up about that very topic later this year.

In the meantime, this year, CultOfWhatever is looking back on some of those influential, transformative, genre-defining, and cult-favorite films of 1999. Up first is a movie the certainly defied trends, broke rules, and made a household name out of a now-infamous director, M. Night Shyamalan. It’s fitting that we start here since M. Night’s latest movie Glass was just released and serves as the first time the director has had any positive buzz about him in more than a decade. What began with The Sixth Sense and the promise of “a modern-day Hitchcock” quickly unraveled with a series of movies that grew more and more defined by their hackneyed twist endings.

Audiences came to expect an MNS movie to have a mind-bending twist, which really ruins the point of such a plot device. Viewers didn’t just watch his movies, they scrutinized them on the fly, analyzing every frame as it appeared, looking for clues, hoping to figure out the secret before it was revealed. Then, when twist finally was unveiled, it was always something so far out, so ridiculous, and so hokey that, not only did no one guess it, but viewers got angry because the surprise was (A) anticipated and yet unexpected, and (B) silly and cheap-feeling.

If your movie is silly you can get away with a silly ending (see: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and its infamous “cop-out” ending), but when you play it straight, your ending has to play it straight too. Instead, audiences ended up laughing at the foolishness of them, then their laughter turned to frustration when they realized they just shelled out $7.95 to see a movie that ultimately offered nothing more than an empty plot and twist they knew was coming and was dumb upon revelation.

Not good.

And why were the twists always expected? Even better: Why did fans keep coming back to see his movies despite an obvious and persistent decline in quality from one release to the next? The answer is because The Sixth Sense was such a flawless movie it bought Shyamalan a half-dozen terrible movies’ worth of goodwill.

Probably the worst thing about MNS’ career cratering the way it did is how The Sixth Sense suffered collateral damage. Younger fans who are used to seeing the director as a punchline who makes punchline movies, look at his debut feature with the same over-scrutinizing eye that was applied to rubbish like Lady in the Water or The Happening. Those movies had nothing to say, told their stories poorly, bored their audiences, and ended with a whimper, not with a bang.

The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, deserved every Oscar nomination it got (six, including Best Picture). It has a twist ending, sure, and it’s easily the best in MNS’ library, but the movie should not be defined by its ending. It rises beyond that by being a brilliantly written, edited, and even directed film. The camera work that M. Night loves so much (Dutch angles, foreground object placement, etc), which would later be mocked because the movies around them were bad, instead work perfectly here. It’s literally halfway through the movie before this ghost story shows us any ghosts (not counting the obvious one), yet the camera work, the pacing, the score, all of it adds up to a persistent feeling of dread…you just don’t know why.

And yet, the movie really isn’t a horror film. It has terrifying moments, sure, but the reason it works so effectively as a horror film is because it doesn’t act like a conventional horror film. The dramatic moments outnumber and outweigh the scary ones ten-to-one. This film is a drama first and foremost, with strong character arcs carrying the story. Much of the story, in fact, could have been done without any of the supernatural stuff (minus a few tweaks) and it still would have been a great movie.

The gimmick and the twist are just there for sizzle on the steak.

That being said, of all the MNS movies, this is the one that gains real value on repeated viewings. His other films are two-watchers. You watch them the first time, wondering what the twist is, then you see the twist, roll your eyes and watch it again, groaning at how silly the movie is in hindsight.

Not here: The Sixth Sense is a rare sort of film that is brilliant the first time you see it, and then becomes an entirely different brilliant film the second time you see it. The first time you see it, the star of the movie is the young boy Cole; the second time it’s Dr. Malcolm. The fact that Shyamalan was able to tell parallel main stories, overlapping each other, without you realizing it, is a credit to his skills as a writer, no matter how maligned those skills are today. This is easily his tightest screenplay/story, with a plot that wraps up neat and tidy without the twist feeling forced or tacked on for mere shock value.

“I see dead people” is the famous takeaway line and it occurs almost exactly halfway through. As mentioned, to that point we’ve seen no dead people except Malcolm. All we’ve experienced is the effect they have on Cole. If you saw it without knowing the plot, you’d have no idea what was really happening to the child. The midpoint-revelation sheds light on the mystery thus far, forcing you to rethink some of the odd things you saw in the first half…which is exactly what the ending-twist does to recontextualize the whole film. That’s amazing writing.

So here’s a movie that starts out one way, then halfway through becomes something else, then when it’s over it flips the whole table over and says it’s really about something else entirely. That’s a lot of plot in a single sub-two hour movie. A lot of movies today run well past two hours and end up with nothing to say. The Sixth Sense has, packed within its short runtime, a drama film about a boy trying to cope with being different, a horror film about a boy trying to get a grip on the terrifying things he–and only he—can see, and a supernatural film about a child psychologist who unknowingly dies and needs help coming to terms with the mistakes he made in life before he can move on and find peace.

That’s a movie that deserves its place among the very best, which showed the world the talent M. Night Shyamalan possesses (somewhere deep inside him), and remains a legitimately brilliant film, one which is still awesome twenty years later.

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