The last eleven years have not been particularly kind to M. Night Shyamalan. Once he was a wunderkind, proclaimed to be the heir to the throne of Spielberg, but then he bought into his own press and turned back to what made him famous, the “twist” ending, and…
After Earth (2013) is co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since Signs (2002), but considering what came after Signs, that’s not much of a compliment. The story is set well over 1,000 years in the future after we destroyed the earth so much that it evolved to destroy us, forcing humans to seek a new home. Upon arrival on the new planet, the indigenous population didn’t want humans there and unleashed a beast that was blind but could smell the pheromones produced by fear enabling them to track and kill humans that were afraid of them, which was everyone. Well, everyone except General Cypher Raige (Will Smith). He learned to eliminate fear thereby rendering him invisible to the creatures and able to kill them. They call this ‘ghosting’ because he is like a phantasm to the creatures. He then begins to train others in the art of ‘ghosting’. Being not just in the military, but the Supreme Commander of it, Cypher isn’t home much, not just somewhere else on the planet but in space somewhere as the humans have mastered interstellar travel. He’s married to Faia (Sophie Okonedo) and has two children, Senshi (Zoe Kravitz) and Kitai (Jaden Smith). Senshi is much older than Kitai, 19 to his 7-9. Senshi is one day killed by one of these fear monsters and Kitai blames himself for her death as he hid where she told him to (in a dome to mask his pheromones) and has devoted himself to becoming a Ranger like his father so he can prove to his father that he is not a coward.
I hereby declare After Earth the final nail in M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial coffin. If I am wrong, and he returns, we all lose. It really is a shame seeing the deterioration of the man as a writer maybe even more so than a director. The Sixth Sense was an awe-inspiring debut, and fanboys across the landscape cite his follow up, Unbreakable, as his best film (include me in that opinion). Even though Signs was a smash hit, things began wobbling. Then came the trifecta of The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, each worse than the previous, followed by the disastrous adaptation of The Last Airbender. And that is where we find After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest step in his long and painful death march. Here is the very definition of laziness in storytelling.
You won’t see M. Night Shyamalan’s name mentioned anywhere in the trailers or the TV ads for AfterEarth, the sci-fi/action film starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden (TheKarate Kid). Shyamalan’s absence is intentional, of course. Few filmmakers can claim the dubious honor of being relegated to an afterthought in a film’s advertising campaign like Shyamalan can, due in no small part to the precipitous decline in the quality of his work, a point-of-view shared by critics and moviegoers alike. Shyamalan’s tarnished reputation, however, wasn’t enough to dissuade Will Smith, one of the shrewdest actor-producers in Hollywood, from giving Shyamalan the opportunity to co-write and direct After Earth, a science-fiction/adventure film from an idea Smith himself developed. From the ample evidence on hand, it’s a decision Smith has or will soon come to regret, as will any moviegoer who sets aside common sense and gives After Earth a chance it doesn’t deserve.
It’s fascinating to chart the career path of M. Night Shyamalan. After bursting out of obscurity with the Plot Twist of the Century in The Sixth Sense (and earning huge box-office and six Oscar nominations to boot), his odd mix of dark, brooding style set against almost whimsical narrative backdrops became a brand all its own. Over the course of the ensuing decade, “M. Night Shyamalan’s” would be placed strategically over the titles of five more films, but rather than building a legacy, those five films functioned more to gradually tear down the mystique. With Unbreakable and Signs, many were clamoring for inevitable plot twists that just didn’t happen. When those audiences were given a plot twist in The Village, they were shocked more by its ridiculousness than any legitimate surprise factor. The most significant takeaway from Lady in the Water was that M. Night cast himself as The Writer Who Would Change History. And then, alas, The Happening happened, and that was all she wrote for the M. Night Shyamalan brand.