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Bad Movie Tuesday: The Commercialization of M. Night Shyamalan

December 3, 2013

After Earth movie poster

In 1999 a little film entitled The Sixth Sense exploded onto the scene and became a cultural phenomena. SPOILER!!!! The creepy tale about a kid and his dead friend grossed $672 million at the box office. It was nominated for Academy Awards and cemented “I see dead people” into the cinema cannon.  The director was 29 year old M. Night Shyamalan whose only prior directorial credit was a little film called Wide Awake.

Shyamalan’s next film was the now cult classic Unbreakable. It is my favorite Shyamalan film. I love how a man with weak bones is convinced there is someone who is indestructible. Sadly, the film didn’t light up the critical world like The Sixth Sense because expectations were too high and the movie wasn’t a retread. However,  it found an afterlife on DVD and has a devoted following. 

M. Night broke out of his sophomore semi-slump with the blockbuster Signs. Signs was a massive hit ($400 million worldwide) starring Mel Gibson as a grieving widower battling aliens. It received positive critical reception (74%RT) but rumblings started popping up in regards to certain narrative patterns and plot contrivances (water kills aliens etc…).

Times began to change for M. as his next films The Village (43%), Lady In the Water (24%) and The Happening (17%) were profitable failures. They made money but were savaged by a populace who had grown weary of the twists, turns and plotting of Shyamalan. The last nail in the coffin was the sometimes beautiful and mostly confusing The Happening in which air wiped out people’s ability to act.

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Shyamalan had swung big and missed repeatedly. His failure had become a joke and the studios were no longer interested in his original stories.

His next job was a director for hire on the live action adaptation of The Last Airbender. The film made copious amounts of money ($319 million worldwide) but was critically and publicly reviled.  The Last Airbender felt like a movie by committee that wanted to quell Shyamalan’s tendencies and instead came up with a boring diet cola version of his films.

The biggest problem is Shyamalan needs a slow burn story in which he reveals layer after layer. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable slowly lead us to beautiful actualization. They took their time and the reward was wonderful. However, his writing style doesn’t mesh well with popular cartoons adored by kids with short attention spans. Thus, he had to pack in seasons of a beloved show into one movie while trying to keep his writing and directing style alive. The result was lucrative but mediocre.

This leads us to After Earth. The story of a teenager braving the wilderness while his stern dad lectures him. The movie features monotone dialogue, wonky CGI and an abrupt ending.  It is an odd film that was fairly/unfairly savaged by critics. Is it the worst film ever made? Nope. Is it good? Nope. Did it need to be dogpiled? Nope. Did it make a decent amount of money? Yep. ($243 million) Did The How Did This Get Made crew do an entertaining discussion for After Earth? Yep.

Some critics called it the “worst film ever, aside from Battlefield Earth” while others marveled at the ineptitude and simply decried the “lack of ambition.” Words such as tedious, terrible, pompous and vanity were thrown around with reckless abandon. Some called it a slight comeback, others insulted the Smith nepotism and other’s took digs at Scientology (Read it all here).

After Earth is structurally unsound and slightly bonkers.  Jaden Smith had no chance as he acted in front of green screens while speaking with a quasi southern accent (I think).  This movie was a no-win. Will Smith came up with the idea and M Night tried to fit that into his narrative wheelhouse. The result was an off-kilter film that in no way meshed. The biggest problem is it was rigid when it should have explored new territory. There was zero wonder or thrills because of the monotone narration and overall glossiness. After Earth should have resembled Avatar’s Pandora but instead felt like a boring day at the office.

Remember when Bruce Willis finds out he can bench press hundreds of pounds in Unbreakable? The scene was exciting because a father and his son were learning about newly realized power. A moment of basement weight lifting carried more heft and suspense than a young kid surviving a violent new world.

Shyamalan directing huge epics or adaptations reminded me of a Mitch Hedburg quote. When asked if he wanted to act Mitch replied:

I worked my ass off to become a really good cook, and they said “alright you’re a cook… can you farm?

M. Night worked hard to tell small singular tales and was now tasked to tell huge multilevel stories. The result was bound to disappoint. He can cook up small stories but should never have been asked to make mass produced fluff.

I miss the days where he had the freedom to tell his strange tales. Some of the greatest and worst films have come from singular visions (Citizen Kane, The Room). We need auteurs who swing big. Let them miss occasionally because when they connect the films are epic. Swing away Shyamalan. Swing away. The $2,276,000,000 worldwide box office receipts don’t lie.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2013 10:08 am

    It was dull. Actually, scratch that: REALLY DULL. However, I didn’t mind this one as much as everybody else seemed to, especially since it wasn’t as god-awful as anything the dude’s done in the past decade or so. Good review.

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  1. Split: Welcome to the Shyamalanaissance | Movies, Films & Flix

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