Friday, April 19, 2013

After Earth: M. Night Shyamalan

Sony Pictures has announced that one of their big summer offerings, After Earth is moving up a week from June 7th to May 31st.  The news is incidental and may not mean too much.  After all, the futuristic father/son science fiction flick stars Will Smith in his preferred genre alongside his son Jaden, and dates switching is all apart of the tentpole game.  If nothing else it gives the original film, co-written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, another weekend to breathe before Man of Steel presumably takes the world by storm.  What is fascinating is that nearly all of the marketing material is cleverly trying to disguise the fact that Shyamalan is directing this.  Surely, with Will Smith's marquee name and mug, there would be little question that he wouldn't be front and center, but the fall from grace from the Hollywood echelon for Shyamalan is interesting to the point that while critics and fans have continued to throw stones upon his career and not quite living up to the potential he first brought, he is still one of the few filmmakers allowed into the big budget Hollywood circle and continue making pricey films.  Perhaps this is because, despite (or in spite) of the drubbing his films consistently bring, they still make lots of money:

  • The Last Airbender (2010)- $319.7 million
  • The Happening (2008)- $163.4 million
  • The Lady in the Water (2006)- $72.7 million
  • The Village (2004)- $256.6 million
  • Signs (2002)- $408.2 million
  • Unbreakable (2000)- $248.1 million
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)- $672.8 million

All figures are worldwide box office totals, which skews the picture slightly and puts more vetted interest in international receipts and their ultimate power on Hollywood product.  In this light, ever one of Shyamalan's films have made their money back-- I'm dismissing his first feature, the 1992 dramedy Wide Awake because it has nil to to with the Shyamalan brand.

Yet it's still a fascination that the man once deemed heir to the Spielberg throne fell so hard and so fast in the cinematic conversation.  Naturally, starting things off with a lightening in a bottle success story like The Sixth Sense would never be an easy act to follow for that film was so huge and so beloved in such a short period of time-- it was one of those genuine once-every-few-years surprise stories that seems to galvanize the culture and jolt it.  Looking back, the film still holds up as a lithe and suspenseful ghost story.  The film earned six Oscar nominations, including two for Shyamalan-- anything that followed would be hard to match.  Some take great offense to Unbreakable, his quickie follow-up which also featured Bruce Willis.  I find it the best film of his career, a corker of originality, suspense and everything in the air finesse-- it's the tightest and most economical film he's made, and showcases sequences worthy of the coined moniker, Hitchcockian, however, in some finicky circles, he was already beginning to lose some of his luster.  In full confession, the twist of The Sixth Sense was ruined for me before I saw the film shortly after it arrived, and that luster hadn't really materialized for me the first go around.

Signs was a big honking success, and was a nice showcase for the directors ability to distill good, natural performances in hooky, Twilight Zone-ish environments, but for the first time (at least for me), it felt like a cheap, gotcha at the audience.  The Village continued that trend but brought it to a more insipid level, despite being beautifully photographed.  Even still, however, Shyamalan seemed a game showman and certain sequences of both films have a flowing magnetism that deserved a better script and richer characters.  There was a sort of rooting interest in them in spite of themselves.  The latter product (The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender) almost feel read like stern middle fingers to Shymalan's detractors.  And yet, the filmmaker seems to in a sense be eating his cake and having it to-- for he's in a metaphoric movie land jail for delivering years of crap product and barely whispered during the marketing of his latest film, but still enjoying the autonomy of making big budget studio films with movie stars and producing films that are turning a profit.

1 comment:

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