In the post-Lady in the Water era, it’s tough to remember how bonkers people once went for The Sixth Sense. But a mere millennium ago, M. Night Shyamalan’s atmospheric thriller was the toast of audiences and critics alike — a box office smash, a cultural touchstone, a freakin’ Best Picture nominee. Not only at the MTV Movie Awards, but also at the Oscars!
How did a simple, potentially gimmicky ghost story capture our hearts and minds so fully? Easy: because despite the shadow hindsight casts upon it, The Sixth Sense is a great movie. Its brief 107-minute run time means not a scene is wasted; its creepy visuals are arresting and inventive; its performances are perfectly calibrated, from Bruce Willis’s tortured psychologist to Mischa Barton’s unearthly shade. (Though really, Night — did you need to name Haley Joel Osment’s character Cole Sear? Even in his early days, the guy couldn’t help himself.)
And most importantly, The Sixth Sense‘s game-changing twist manages to be both surprising and inevitable — making a viewer who doesn’t see it coming feel in awe of the film’s craft, not like the victim of a cheap trick. Even if you do anticipate the whole ghost thing, you can still admire the subtlety of Shyamalan’s work. The movie has layers, people — and I mean that sincerely. Let’s peel them back for the latest installment of EW’s Best Summer Blockbusters countdown.
Release Date: August 6, 1999
Box Office: $293.5 million domestic ($26.7 million opening weekend, $379 million worldwide)
The Sixth Sense started strong out of the gate, wresting box office glory from another buzzy scarefest — The Blair Witch Project — and keeping its number one spot for over a month. (It was eventually knocked out by another supernatural story, the generally panned Stigmata.) On Labor Day Weekend, it became the second movie in history to earn more than $20 million for five consecutive weekends. (Blame that ending, which had moviegoers returning again and again to search for clues.) And though Shyamalan’s breakout success didn’t break any box office records, it did finish 1999 as the year’s second-highest grossing movie, behind only a buzz machine that not even Jar Jar Binks could stop: Star Wars: Episode I — the Phantom Menace. Given the massive difference in the two films’ budgets — Phantom Menace cost $115 million, not counting marketing, while Sixth Sense was made for a modest $40 million — Shyamalan’s flick may have had the last laugh. Also, Episode 1 spent four weeks at no. 1; Sixth Sense managed that feat for five in a row.
The Competition: As previously mentioned, The Sixth Sense opened the same weekend Blair Witch went wide, giving those who would be spooked a tough decision to make. Ultimately, Sixth Sense came out on top — also beating out John McTiernan’s remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, which was generally well-received but not quite as buzzy as Shyamalan’s work. Clearly, though, the film benefited from a summer release, when it was surrounded mostly by lighthearted confections (Runaway Bride, Bowfinger, Mickey Blue Eyes) and unapologetic B-movies (Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Deep Blue Sea). In a sea of cotton candy, a rich, deep chocolate bar stands out.
What EW said: “Cinema literates know when to expect the unexpected in a thriller. Without giving the slightest bit away, then, let me say that the coolest thing about The Sixth Sense is how this twisty ghost story, about a child who sees dead people all around him, circumvents all such instincts. It’s a psychological thriller that actually thrills. B+” — Lisa Schwarzbaum
Cultural Impact Then: Shyamalanamania swept the country like a ghost with a broom, launching Osment as the era’s premiere kid actor and creating a thirst for both twisty narratives and gut-punching endings. Jeff Gordinier said as much in a November 1999 EW cover story, crediting The Sixth Sense as part of a new generation of creative, exquisitely crafted blockbusters that didn’t just entertain audiences, but also made them think. And Shyamalan’s innovation was rewarded, to the tune of six Oscar nominations (including, yes, one for Best Picture), countless other accolades, and “I see dead people”‘s entrance into the cultural lexicon. Bruce Willis came out of the movie looking pretty good, too.
Cultural Staying Power: People still say “I see dead people,” right?
Maybe not. And like Haley Joel Osment’s visible breath, The Sixth Sense‘s reputation has largely faded into the ether. Its artistry has been forgotten; its ending has been reduced to a punchline in countless jokes about twist endings. (You can bet “Bruce Willis was dead the whole time!” is coming right after anyone points out that Rosebud was a sled.) Blame Shyamalan’s disappointing follow-up films, which read like a list culled from Ruining a Film Career for Dummies (excepting Unbreakable and the first hour or so of Signs): The Village. Lady in the Water. The Happening. The Last Airbender. After Earth. Oof!
Why did all those films fail so spectacularly? Because for the most part, they took the wrong lesson from The Sixth Sense: Instead of imitating its understated grace, they focused on trying to pull the rug out from underneath audiences. Most of Shyamalan’s post-Sixth Sense projects aren’t movies; they’re elaborate, pompous setups built solely for the sake of disappointing payoffs. Which is why, over a decade after the filmmaker’s greatest triumph, the mere appearance of Shyamalan’s name in a trailer is enough to make moviegoers burst into gleeful laughter.
And that’s a shame — because the man who made The Sixth Sense clearly still has something to offer the world of filmmaking. Maybe at this point, the backlash has lasted long enough that we can start rooting for a Night comeback; an upcoming movie that reunites the auteur with Bruce Willis certainly sounds promising. And at the very least, this one probably won’t feature any killer trees.