I debated for quite a while over whether to go see “After Earth” in theaters this past weekend. Since science fiction is my favorite film genre, any movie set in space or in the future automatically has my interest. We’ve been seeing a trend towards more science fiction films lately, and I try to see as many of them as I can, because I want Hollywood to make more.
However, the initial buzz for “After Earth” just wasn’t very good, and the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score currently is hovering around a dismal 12 percent. I’ll admit to enjoying some films that were certified “rotten” on the Rotten Tomatoes site, but 12 percent is pretty bad. Even the critics that certified it as “fresh” weren’t very enthusiastic.
I ultimately decided to pass on this movie — and it appears that many other Americans did too. The movie opened to a rather tepid $27 million, unable to claim the top spot even in its first week of release. It marks a rare stumble for actor Will Smith, who’s normally a reliable box office draw, and perhaps another nail in the coffin of director M. Night Shyamalan’s once promising career. Smith’s reputation is strong enough to survive a flop like this, but with the cringe-inducing “The Last Airbender” already on Shyamalan’s résumé, is the director’s Hollywood career truly over?
Shyamalan’s rise and fall from critical graces is a bit puzzling. His most famous film, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” was a box office and critical success, earning about $673 million globally. The ghostly thriller even earned Shyamalan Oscar nominations for writing and directing. He followed it up by several more box office successes, including the alien drama “Signs.” Newsweek even called him the next “Steven Spielberg.”
Due to these successes, the fact his career has now begun to unravel comes as even more of a shock, culminating in increasingly lower-rated films like “Lady in the Water” and the genuinely awful “The Last Airbender.” I’ve sat through some bad films, but “The Last Airbender” is, without question, one of the worst movies I have ever paid to watch. I’m a silver-lining kind of person, and I try to find at least something to praise in every film I watch. But “The Last Airbender” was just BAD. The acting was wooden, the dialogue was flat, and the film angered quite a few fans of the original cartoon series.
So, what happened? How do you get from “The Sixth Sense” to “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth”? It could be Shyamalan experienced too much success too soon. His name was quickly built into a “brand,” and his signature twists gained him quite a bit of attention. Maybe overconfidence led to poor creative choices, and he’s lost touch with what made him successful in the first place. His most recent films have indicated maybe the arena of big-budget blockbusters isn’t the best fit for him, and perhaps he’d do better by returning to his roots.
I believe anyone can pull off a comeback, and I don’t think Shyamalan’s career is over (after all, George Clooney survived “Batman & Robin,” right?) However, Shyamalan needs to be really, really careful at this point. I think his best plan of action would be to lay low for a while. Let the bad buzz blow over, then spend time working on a small movie. Not a lot of special effects or A-list actors — just a small, suspenseful thriller. He needs to win back critics and prove to film fans that he’s still capable of a “Sixth Sense”-like success.
So, what do you think? Is “After Earth” the last straw for M. Night Shyamalan? Were his earlier successes over-hyped, or, conversely, have reviewers been too tough on him? Is he still a director with promise you’d like to see make a comeback?