Can M. Night Shyamalan Redeem Himself?

When M. Night Shyamalan made a huge splash in the movie industry with The Sixth Sense, critics hailed him as the second coming of Steven Spielberg (an honor bestowed on other filmmakers since such as Bryan Singer and J.J. Abrams) despite the fact that his filmmaking style and choice of stories were completely different from the elder director–perhaps it was simply that Shyamalan was able to get a convincing performance from a child actor (interestingly enough, Spielberg later used The Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence).  His next couple films were successful, but had mixed criticism.  Unbreakable did the unthinkable and gave audiences a real-world take on superheroes before it was trendy, and Signs told yet another aliens-invade-the-Earth story, but was more interested in religious philosophy than pyrotechnics.

Shyamalan wrote, directed, and often acted in his own movies, making him a true auteur in an industry built on collaboration.  He ostracized himself in the motion picture industry by coming off incredibly arrogant in interviews and making-of documentaries on his DVDs as well as refusing to go Hollywood by insisting on making his films in his home state of Pennsylvania.  Insiders waited for the inevitable fall, while fickle fans who love to tear down their straw men turned him into the punch line of a joke upon the release of his subsequent films.  His films gained notoriety by having the coolest twist endings this side of The Twilight Zone, but the big reveal in The Village disappointed fans (of course, it didn’t occur at the end, but as the Act 3 turning point).  Then came the “bedtime story” Lady in the Water, which was all over the place tonally.  That was followed by his disaster of a film, The Happening (which made it to Round 3 of the Filmverse Summer ’12 Theatre of Shame).  What started out with a compelling concept degenerated into a laughably bad film with weak protagonists, a lame conflict, and ludicrous random “happenings.”  That was nothing compared to the travesty of The Last Airbender, his adaptation of the excellent animated series.  These last trio of films begs the question of whether he can make another good movie again.

His next effort looks promising.  After Earth teams Will Smith and his son Jaden in a futuristic adventure where the two crash on a hostile Earth-like planet (or perhaps Earth itself) where the boy must save his injured father’s life.  Check out the French trailer, which is apparently the only one released so far (thanks to the Focused Filmmaker for the heads up):

It looks visually exciting, though it is distinctly reminiscent of a certain James Cameron film–perhaps it could be renamed Avatar Earth.  Smith Senior’s monologue (presumably to his son) is on the bland side, which is not unusual for performances in a Shyamalan film.  For some reason, he directs normally engaging actors (Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Robin Wright, Samuel L. Jackson, Sigourney Weaver to name a few) to be nearly emotionless.  It’s a technique that sometimes works because it allows the audience to project their own feelings onto the characters; however, it can result in lackluster performances when the opposite is required–see The Last Airbender.  For a story that’s essentially a science fiction retelling of Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away with a juvenile lead, we need to see Jaden Smith deal with the dangers around him in a human way; if he takes a dead-panned approach, it may prevent the audience from connecting with his character’s plight.

Another of Shyamalan’s directorial choices is to photograph the action in an objective manner–placing the camera somewhere outside the action and letting us watch the events unfold before us instead of putting us in the midst of the action.  He loves extended takes, and his compositions are often very intriguing.  However, After Earth seems to be heavy on adventure rather than on drama, and that technique may hurt the production (though I actually got a kick out of the framing of action scenes in The Last Airbender, one of the few things that I liked about the movie).  As a director, he’s usually more about mood than action.  The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all worked so well because of the sense of dread and fear that Shyamalan was able to build, whereas Lady and the Water and The Happening could not establish a consistent mood and seemed to at times want to be comedies in addition to having horrific elements.  He already proved that he could handle comedy well with his little-known earlier film Wide Awake, which deftly handled dramatic and comedic elements equally well.

One plus that After Earth has is that its protagonist is a young actor, as one of Shyamalan’s strengths has been in directing kids.  Until his last two bombs, his films could be judged on their quality by how prominently young characters played in the plots.  Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense both had kids in leading roles, while Unbreakable and Signs had strong supporting children.  The Village and Lady in the Water were fairly devoid of kids.  The Happening featured a girl that required constant protection and a couple of ill-fated teenagers in one sequence.  Of course, The Last Airbender was all about kids, and given the material the actors had to work with, they weren’t half bad (Ang was completely out of character, though Noah Ringer was the perfect choice for the role, and his performance in Cowboys and Aliens proves that he can act).  Given that After Earth appears to be focused primarily on Jaden Smith, there is hope that Shyamalan will be back in form.  The young Smith proved with The Karate Kid that he can carry a movie, as long as his apparently large ego (based on talk show appearances) doesn’t get in the way.

In 2010, Shyamalan tried an experiment where he produced a film, Devil, that was based on his original story, but he handed off the screenwriting and directing duties to others.  It was supposed to be the first of several Twilight Zone-ish movies that he was going to make in this manner.  In a sense, he was acquiescing to the pressure put on him to give up some control of his movies when his genius was proving to be fleeting.  It worked for George Lucas with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and his return to the director’s chair churned out the dreaded prequels.  What’s interesting is that in After Earth, Shyamalan shares writing credits with three other people, so perhaps he’s learned a lesson after all.  Let’s hope that this film regains his status as a respected writer and director.

copyright © 2012 FilmVerse


22 comments on “Can M. Night Shyamalan Redeem Himself?

  1. I haven’t given up on M Night yet, I think he’s still got a comeback in the future, probably not with After Earth though. I don’t have a good feeling about that film, not the least of which is because of the cast. I love Unbreakable so I do hope he can turn things around somehow.

  2. Shyamalan is always an interesting subject of debate.

    I actually liked Lady in the Water but since then his films have, undeniably, gotten worse. Devil was an interesting, albeit predictable, twist of a film.

    Hopefully, the inclusion of The Smiths is more than just a last ditch effort to get fans back to his movies. I think that they will bring a new element to his films that has a possibility of working very well. It will be interesting to see what happens for Shyamalan AFTER “after earth.”

    Thank you for the kind shout out by the way. I reallyappreciate it.

    • I sort of enjoyed Lady in the Water when I saw it in the theater, but was unable to sit through it on DVD. I appreciated what he tried to do with it, especially as a “bedtime story” as he called it. However, it was all over the place and couldn’t figure out if it was a horror story, a comedy, a fantasy, or what exactly. It was much the same (though worse) with The Happening, which had an interesting concept that could have been made into a very creepy thriller, but instead he played it for laughs at times and then went bizarro in other scenes so that the inconsistency was infuriating.

  3. The trailer looks interesting. One unusual thing is that Will Smith’s voice sounds so different, it might actually be a voice-over. But I’m not sure why they would do that. Maybe it’s part of the twist.

  4. Good article. Thinking about it I personally I don’t think he has got anything to redeem, didn’t really like ‘the sixth sense’, and don’t think he has ever made anything that’s better than average.

  5. I’m still a big fan of MNS first three films. But, by golly do I hate his last two, THE HAPPENING AND AIRBENDER (though, I did enjoy DEVIL). So, I’m mixed on the prospect, Jamie. He’s dug himself a hole, but it would be good for fans and himself, if he got out of it. We’ll see…

  6. It’s going to be terrible! Not even going to watch it unless there is overwhelming praise from everyone 😀

    • It very well could be, but I’m reluctant to jump on a bandwagon hating on a film before I have a chance to judge it for myself, or at least like you say to wait and see what the consensus is. I dismissed everyone’s trashing of The Happening as simply people on the Internet yelling and screaming over their expectations not being met; but when I finally saw the movie, I realized how awful it really was. Most directors have made a bad movie here and there but have been able to recover. I’m really hoping that Shyamalan is able to do it with After Earth. The trailer doesn’t really show much, so it could go either way.

      • After ‘The Last Airbender’ I don’t think he deserves the benefit of the doubt and as for ‘The Happening’ I don’t care what others thought as I just thought it got boring in the second half 😦

        The trailer on its own doesn’t impress me either, nothing catches my attention and I can see it being forgotten easily 😦

  7. The answer to your question is no.
    I’ll probably eat my words for saying this, but this doesn’t look that great.

    • I haven’t given up hope on him yet. Even his misfires have had a few things to admire (even if you have to look really hard). I admire him for attempting to have his own voice when so many promising filmmakers get lost in the sea of generic blockbusters. That said, After Earth has no less than three major studios attached to it (Sony, Columbia, and Disney–though the first two are actually one and the same). Perhaps “selling out” will be a good thing for him so he can reign in his ego and learn to collaborate. Though I have a feeling that if it ends up being a turkey, he’ll have a hard time getting funding again.

      • I do hope I’m wrong and I surely wish him the best. I’m always up for a good sci-fi, especially ones that center around a subject like ‘After Earth’ does.

        I just feel like I’ve been duped by him too many times, spent hard earned money to see what I feel are below average films with little effort. He has a couple of respectable films under his belt, Sixth Sense being his best. But the old analogy of ‘Fool me once, fool me twice.’ comes into play foe me here. 🙂

        • That’s a valid point. To some degree, I think he believed his own press and felt that he could do anything and the public would eat it up. At what point did anyone tell him in pre-production of The Happening, for instance, that the characters were ineffectual and unlikeable? Or that Lady in the Water didn’t really make much sense? Or that he got pretty much everything wrong in The Last Airbender and that fans would be outraged? You can’t just write a screenplay and expect it to be wonderful while being blind to its flaws. I think that he had a vision for each of his movies, but the high expectations the public has for him does not allow him to make bad movies–and his sense of self worth is so high that he doesn’t even realize that he’s making bad movies. Even Spielberg has acknowledged that Hook, 1941, and The Temple of Doom were not all that great and had major problems.

          On a side note, I find it amusing that the poster for After Earth advertises that it’s from the director of Unbreakable.

          • Very well stated…I agree with you 100%.

            That is weird isn’t it….I’m also surprised that Will Smith’s head doesn’t take up 75% of the poster. He’s the big selling point of the film. :p

          • I get the impression that Will won’t be in much of the film, probably Acts 1 and 3 with the middle part devoted to Jaden’s quest to find a way to save his life. In that respect, he’s trying to boost his son as a major movie star by giving him equal treatment. I guess I respect that, though it’s a bit arrogant to be promoting his own kids. It was a gimmick when he had Jaden act along side him in The Pursuit of Happyness, even though it worked. In that case, Will was definitely front and center. The Karate Kid had Jackie Chan as the sidekick, so to speak. I hope both Smiths actually put effort into their roles and don’t sluff off just because of the type of movie it is.

          • Ah…so it’s kind of like the movie ‘Battleship’ where you Liam Neeson is promoted to the hilts, and appears for about 10 minutes in the movie. Good to know.

            I just hope this film won’t be jokey and keeps a serious tone.

          • Yeah, that’s a bait and switch that Hollywood loves to do–get a headliner to be in a supporting role for the marquee value when a no-namer is actually the lead. It’s actually a way low budget independent films get financed all the time since distributors want name talent connected with the film that they can exploit.

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