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.
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