M. Night Shyamalan is back directing and it reminds us of that old adage about a tree falling in the forest and if anyone would hear it. Shyamalan is helming Will Smith and Jaden Smith in After Earth, arriving in theaters May 31 and nowhere on the After Earth trailer or the After Earth poster is the director’s name featured prominently. Why?
Has that much changed since the director explosively landed on the scene with his powerful The Sixth Sense? He followed that smash hit that starred Bruce Willis with Unbreakable, also starring Willis (and Samuel L. Jackson). Some would say his golden touch had been tarnished a bit with his effort to tell a truly original superhero origins story that was rooted deeply in the graphic novel/comic book world.
Then, he gave this writer all the Signs I needed to jump on his next project. He substituted his actor muse Willis for Mel Gibson and presented an alien invasion movie unlike any we had ever seen. Most of the action took place in Gibson’s rural farm house with the attack being chronicled through small hints at Gibson’s home and what the audience and characters gleaned from the news reports on television.
Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix were impeccably cast as brothers and the film’s exploration into the role of faith and losing faith were powerful. Some of the story was a little far fetched, we’ll give you that. But, it was another spoke in the wheel that is the uber-talent of Shyamalan.
Many saw Signs as a self indulgent piece of work from an auteur that some were saying was hard to collaborate with, all behind closed doors. Then, with the arrival of The Village, the magic man’s appeal began to unravel.
Between The Village and his follow-ups, The Happening and Lady in the Water, the classic Hollywood news cycle of putting someone on a pedestal and then tearing them down took shape. Ripping apart Shyamalan became a Tinseltown sport. Some said he should focus on directing, as he has a proven talent for it, and that he should leave the screenwriting to others. Others said he should stick to writing scripts and leave the filmmaking to others. Either way… it became clear that the talented writer-director could do no right.
Then, the atom bomb of film moments happened to Shyamalan… he released The Last Airbender. He had taken a beloved franchise that had enormous success on television and beyond, and completely taken it in a direction that almost no one appreciated. The film joined the notorious legions of Hollywood disasters and it appeared that Shyamalan would need to reassess his career as he was now a tainted property.
Fast forward to 2013, and as trailers, stills, television ads and posters arrived for the Smith father son tandem story After Earth... conspicuously absent from any of its materials was the name of the man who co-wrote the script and directed it -- yup, Shyamalan.
Where once was Hollywood royalty, was now someone who was like Voldemort… he who shall not be named!
This is absolutely ridiculous. Yes, After Earth is clearly all about the chemistry onscreen and off between a father and son, Will and Jaden Smith. But, what should not be discounted is that this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Even if Orson Welles spent his career chasing the success of his first directorial effort, Citizen Kane, he didn’t hide in the shadows of all future releases.
I still think that the moniker M. Night Shyamalan is not a dirty word. In fact, anyone who can come up with a story as original and mind-blowing as The Sixth Sense should have the creative freedom to make the movies he (or she) wants to make. Having Shyamalan’s name conspicuously absent from all After Earth promotion has got to be on purpose. In the end, to me, his contribution to the project is what is most appealing.