Answer: After Earth
I walked in hoping that, somehow, Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan working together would inspire each other to create something special or, at the very least, passable. Nope.
It’s sad when a talent like Will Smith becomes so insulated from the public. But I guess since Smith has made SO much money for the studio (Columbia Pictures), they feel obligated to give the man whatever he wants to keep him under their tent. So if he wants to make a movie based on his original idea, produced by himself, his wife, and his brother-in-law, and starring his son, the studio goes, “yeah, sure, why not?” I understand this level of inconspicuous nepotism if this were some micro-budgeted indie movie and you need everybody you know and everybody they know to pitch in to get it off the ground. But when you’re given $130,000,000 to make your pet project, maybe you can keep the in-laws on the sidelines and let professionals make the important decisions.
What’s insulting about the story Smith came up with is the way it assumes everybody in the audience is stupid and has to every everything spelled out for them. Yes, I read Joseph Campbell in high school and know that all stories are essentially about overcoming your personal flaws and demons in order to achieve a greater goal. And those demons are made flesh and given the mask of a monster or beast. WE KNOW THIS! But apparently, Mr. Smith doesn’t seem to think we do. That’s why, every five minutes or so, Smith’s character has to remind his son, and the audience, to “take a knee” and realize that FEAR itself is the obstacle.
Will Smith plays Gen. Cypher Raige, one of those ubermenches whom everyone else in the world of this movie holds in the esteem of a mystical idol. He has moved up in the military for his ability to “ghost”, which involves masking your fear in the face of the enemy. Which is a good thing, since the planet that humans have now inhabited since they were forced to abandon Earth 1000 years ago is riddled with an alien species called Ursa, which is blind and can only detect their prey by “smelling” their fear.
I can’t remember when Will Smith gave a performance this bad. Smith doesn’t just lack fear, he lacks happiness or hope or despair or any human emotion whatsoever. But this could be the result of the direction he was given. More on that later.
Jaden Smith is not an actor. And he doesn’t have the charisma to carry a movie. In The Pursuit of Happyness, he was working next to his father who was giving one of his best and most heartfelt performances. All Jaden had to do was be a kid and stand next to his struggling father trying to protect and provide for his child. In the remake of The Karate Kid, Jaden didn’t have to create a character, because Ralph Macchio already had in the iconic 1984 original. Jaden was more of a proxy than an actor. And Jaden had Jackie Chan and all of the goodwill he brings to bounce off. The Karate Kid was a box office success, but Jaden’s performance had very little to do with it.
Which brings us to M. Night Shyamalan. His being out of touch is something we’ve been witness to for a while. Was there ever a filmmaker as popular as Shyamalan who got caught up in his own image and success so much it led to his downfall? Yes, Michael Bay seems very happy with the fact he is “Michael Bay,” and although Bay has always made popular movies, he was never expected to make GREAT and popular movies. Shyamalan was. By the press and own PR, he was suppose to be the heir to Hitchcock and Spielberg, two filmmakers he tries to emulate. I remember an article back in his glory days where he claimed to have the secret to making a successful movie, but he wasn’t going to tell anybody. I guess it’s slipped his mind and he forgot to write it down, because he hasn’t made a successful movie since 2002.
One of my main problems with Shyamalan as a writer is his utter disregard for logic. And it started to bother me with a movie I actually liked, Signs. Why would a species smart enough and powerful enough to take over an entire planet want to take over a planet primarily made up of a substance dangerous to them? If we humans ever become conquerors of the universe, I’m hoping we’d never want to take over a planet that’s, say, 70% hydrochloric acid, but that’s just me. But I liked the rest of the movie, so I was willing to suspend my disbelief in the service of getting a satisfying emotional response.
But Shyamalan’s disregard for logic became more prevalent with each movie, which made it more difficult to become absorbed in them. Apparently, Shyamalan figured his laziness in storytelling would be masked by his film-making technique, which is strong (the man knows how to use the camera, and his use of longer takes is a refreshing trait amongst popular filmmakers who feel the need to overcut.) But everything he’s made from The Village to The Last Airbender suggests otherwise. I was really hoping After Earth, his first directorial effort as a director-for-hire, would mark a turnaround for him. Unfortunately, it’s just more of the same.
And I much as I like Shyamalan’s visual style, I have a real problem with the way he uses actors. He has them perform in this very austere manner where they whisper and under emote. This worked with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, helping to create a somber and almost funereal atmosphere. But in weaker movies, it becomes distracting. for the simple fact that PEOPLE DON’T ACT THIS WAY! I’m not demanding any sort of realism or naturalism in the performances, but when his later work lack energy and pace, this somber acting style, which was ridiculously out of place in The Happening, only adds to what’s wrong with his movies.
And Will Smith’s performance in After Earth is almost like a parody of the acting in a Shyamalan movie; if he were on SNL and they were doing a sketch mocking Shyamalan’s movies, Smith’s performance would be spectacular. Smith is one of the most effortlessly charismatic of superstars, but in After Earth, all of that has been sucked out of him. Cold, dead eyes don’t work on someone as lively as Will Smith.
I’m sure Will Smith will continue to make films tailored around him that he’ll produce, and as long as he isn’t the story originator, he’ll be fine. But with each film, it looks like the M. Night Shyamalan who made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs has disappeared and won’t come back. Perhaps he’ll do a “Woody Allen,” who after it looked like he had lost his touch pulled a Match Point or a Midnight in Paris out of his hat and showed us that, yes, the magic is still there. And whenever Shyamalan’s next movie is released, I’ll be there hoping some of that spark shines through. But after sitting in the theater watching After Earth, it’ll be harder to convince myself to go on opening weekend.Follow @filmbyfelix