MORE CLEVER than intelligent, more self-consciously grim than emotional, The Sixth Sense nonetheless seemed to ensure that its writer/director M. Night Shyamalan had become the next big thing. After being granted a proverbial blank check to repeat the success, Shyamalan has returned Disney's largesse by delivering one of the worst films of the year. If Unbreakable does nothing else, it proves that the immature New Ageism many indulged in his previous feature is not something the director is likely to grow out of, but rather his confused reaction to a world that terrifies him. If he burst onto the scene by making everyone feel good about ghosts, now he's begging for a paladin to save us from our miserable selves.

Bruce Willis stars--actually, he abandons both his considerable acting talent and his star charisma; it's more accurate to say he sleepily shows up--as David Dunne, mild-mannered security guard, who walks away without a scratch as the sole survivor of a two-train pileup. Soon after, he is approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, pop-eyed intense as always), a comic-book collector suffering from a rare ailment leaving him with brittle, easily broken bones. The frequently-injured Elijah has become convinced that Dunne is his polar opposite, a charmed person, immune to harm, perhaps gifted with psychic powers. Dunne's grudging awareness that he is different from the rest of us is told with as little humor or even enjoyment as possible, thus introducing a whole new genre: the glum, glacially slow, risibly pretentious superhero flick.

It's hard to say what's worse: the grade-school mix of messianic wish fulfillment and find-your-inner-light mysticism, or that all this hogwash is taken so seriously. What is clear, though, is that Tak Fujimoto must now be considered the unacknowledged auteur of The Sixth Sense. His dazzling cinematography made that film a gorgeous portrait of a Philadelphia where mystery and horror could be around every corner. Now, teamed up with Eduardo Serra, Shyamalan sees the same city as a grimy, wholly uninteresting, thoroughly drab environ. You're only as good as the collaborators you hire.