dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Release Date: May 31, 13
I can put up with a lot from M. Night Shyamalan, the current heir to Ed Wood’s coveted throne of trash. For all of his (many) faults as a director, Shyamalan’s films are passionately, feverishly bad, made with a messianic auteurism that’s as misguided as it is gleefully watchable. I feel the same way about his descent into cinematic atrocity that many do about a celebrity breakdown. Watching Shyamalan’s directorial instincts fail him is like getting the chance to see something you feel like you aren’t allowed to, the deluded visions of someone who needs a therapist instead of a movie camera.
The Happening and The Last Airbender aren’t just bad. They’re once-in-a-lifetime bad, the kind of misfire that only a director with serious talent and serious commitment can make. The problem is that the joy in M. Night Shyalaman’s work appears to have been drained with the increasingly hostile reception of his films, and there’s no longer a sense that even he believes in what he’s doing. Although After Earth shares M. Night Shyamalan’s obsession with fathers and sons and his pan-spirituality, he’s no longer the one behind the wheel. From the Scientology parables down to the blatant nepotism, this is a Smith family cruise. Shyamalan’s just going down with the ship.
Based on an original idea by Will Smith, After Earth was conceived as a vehicle for his no-chinned offspring, Jaden, and the result is one of the dullest studio offerings in recent memory. I’ve been everything but bored by Shyamalan’s efforts before, yet After Earth appears to have been filmed on Benadryl. Will Smith is confined to a chair throughout the film while barking orders in a bizarre mid-Atlantic accent to Jaden, and mostly tries not to fall asleep. He was more successful than the audience was.
The plot of After Earth is so nonsensical and adheres to so little logic that it’s not worth mentioning, perhaps because Smith and his script appointees (Shyamalan included) show almost no interest in the story at all. If not, perhaps they would have realized that a planet would never evolve to kill humans if humans migrated away from it 1000 years ago. That’s not how science works. There’s no actual film here, and the script is just a pretense to giving Jaden Smith a platform to launch the next phase of his career. It should be called After Birth.
The problem is that neither Smith shows up to the film, as Will Smith decides not to exude any charisma so as not to steal the spotlight from his son. Bad move. The younger Smith proved himself a capable lead in the 2010 Karate Kid remake, but in the last three years he’s unlearned how to act. Jaden Smith exudes less screen presence than Zooey Deschanel in The Happening, and that’s saying something. In After Earth, Jaden’s most notable traits are distracting upper lip peach fuzz and an accent that makes him sound like a South Park character.
What I find saddest about the film is that, if anything, Shyamalan proves that he’s still capable of directing a film, just not writing it. After the Smiths crash-land on Earth, Jaden has to go wandering through the wilderness of future earth to search for a beacon that will call for help. This is the chance for Shyamalan to stage some gorgeously rendered action sequences and prove himself as a visual stylist, at which he absolutely excels. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky makes the most out of the film’s “World Without Us” vibe, creating a landscape that feels more lush and lived-in than the performances.
Parts of the film were so breathtaking to look at that I wished we could do away with the humans altogether and shoot a nature documentary. In the future, hubris has already wiped out most of humanity. Why not two more?