There’s nothing quite like the journey of M. Night Shaymalan in anything I’ve ever read or heard of in cinema. In 1999, this wunderkind releases one of the best movies I’ve ever seen (and remains so to this day): The Sixth Sense. It gets Oscar nominations. It does tremendously at the box office. Shaymalan was being hailed as the “next Hitchcock”. Then came Unbreakable. I love Unbreakable. I think it’s fantastic and in this age of comic book movies seven times a year; don’t forget that Unbreakable is very much in that genre, grounded in the same sort of realism that Chris Nolan would use to greater effect in The Dark Knight Trilogy. The only problem with Unbreakable was: it wasn’t The Sixth Sense.
It’s my theory, to this day, that the fact that critics didn’t love Unbreakable and that the movie made $100 million instead of $300 million so shattered Shaymalan’s Mr. Glass-like ego that he became, instead of a visionary film maker, someone who would do anything to please everyone. The problem with that being, if you attempt that, you end up pleasing no one. Signs was good too, I thought, maybe sane-ish Mel Gibson‘s last good movie, but it was much more mainstream than his previous two pictures and he was beginning to develop a distinct series of tropes. Then came The Village. The Vilage was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in a theater. Shaymalan was still generally revered, the movie had a good cast, all seemed in order. Then people started saying words. And, as if becoming a single puzzled entity, the audience (somewhere around the point where Bryce Howard insisted that the “magic rocks will protect us” and the Skeksis from the Dark Crystal began skittering around in the woods) turned. It started laughing. Hard. It turned into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But The Village wasn’t even close to the end. Because despite bomb after bomb after bomb; critically and commercially reviled, studios keep handing Shaymalan giant sacks of cash. Perhaps it’s faster than lighting them on fire. I’m unsure as I have never had $200 million to throw down a hole like Avatar: The First Airbender.
I mention all this as a prelude to After Earth because I was done with Shaymalan a looooong time ago. He is broken. He’s Hollywood’s Icarus. You will never shake another Sixth Sense out of him. So it is extremely unfortunate that in having to research Will Smith for a future article, I found myself having to watch After Earth.
I have far less to say about the movie than Shaymalan, because the problem with After Earth is…wait for it…the director. After Earth‘s plot is pretty simple once you get past the prologue. We messed up Earth. We left Earth. We settled on a planet called Nova Prime. There was another race on Nova Prime that wasn’t really super cool with that (though they are NEVER shown or even mentioned beyond the point that they created genetically-bred human killers called Ursas to exterminate us). Will Smith plays the General of the Space Rangers (not exactly their name, but what I call them in my head) who is so in control of his emotions and fear that he secretes none of the pheromones associated with it. Since the Ursa have no sight and hunt humans by the scent of the fear, he is invisible to them. He’s Super Stoic Man.
Therein, lies the biggest problem with the movie, because the F/X and art direction are good. The dialogue was not fantastic, but it didn’t make me want to chew on rock salt like the dialogue in The Village did. Smith and his son (literally and in the film, Jaden Smith) become the only survivors of a mission and end up stranded back on Earth. Will is badly injured in the crash so Jaden needs to journey 100km to where the tail section of their craft broke off to find the rescue beacon. Will can see what Jaden sees and can communicate with him on his journey. There’s also an Ursa loose on the planet. That’s the plot. Here’s the rub.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Will Smith before in a film. If you haven’t and start with After Earth, you will be under the impression that he’s a wooden and emotionless dialogue drone. Somehow, and I didn’t even think this was possible, Shaymalan sucked every bit of charisma and likability out of possibly the most charismatic and likable human being on the planet. Jaden, too, is stripped of the gifts he inherited from his parents. He’s proven himself a remarkable young actor in films like The Pursuit of Happyness and Karate Kid, but he’s just as wooden and toneless as his father and it is maddening. They make Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman look like Hepburn and Tracy for sheer emotionless delivery. I get that fearlessness is part of the plot, but if your plot point ruins your movie, your plot point sucks.
If they’d just let Will and Jaden BE Will and Jaden, this would have been a fine, average science fiction movie. THAT would have been a triumph at this point in Shaymalan’s career. As it is, it’s just watchable eye candy with sonorous dialogue. Please, please develop some kind of Shaymalan patch, Hollywood. Let it go. Kick the habit. It’s not coming back.