After M. Night Shyamalan: Does ‘After Earth’ spell the end of the director’s career?

Jaden SmithI 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?


17 thoughts on “After M. Night Shyamalan: Does ‘After Earth’ spell the end of the director’s career?

  1. Nah, it wont kill him. He’ll still find work. Though his name wont be on a marquee ever again…

    I am shocked by it though, seeing as its Will Smith. As you mention, this is a rare misstep for him 😯

  2. Will Smith’s involvement w/ this project seems to come from a desire to work with his son and the attraction of doing a Scientology themed movie. I think you’re right about M. Night going back to smaller thrillers but I don’t think he should wait. He needs to prove that he can still make money. Unbreakable was great. Sixth Sense was great. That’s his wheelhouse and he needs to return to that. However being responsible for two of the top ten worst movies ever made, that do not qualify for the so-bad-its-good stamp of approval, seems like the kiss of death. Elaine May never made another film after Ishtar. But Kevin Reynolds came back from Waterworld w/ lower budget thrillers and he’s still working. What’s weird is I read that the film has turned Will Smith off of blockbusters. (Wild Wild West & MIB3 weren’t bad enough) But as far as M. Night goes maybe he should move to TV.

    • TV might be a good arena for M. Night, a chance to rebuild his name after Airbender and After Earth. His days as a director of big budget blockbusters are probably over, but I think he can still find work in Hollywood on smaller budgets.

  3. Money is the bottom line so if it truly makes no money whatsoever then he probably wont be making many more big films. Can’t blame the smiths, their track record is spotless (except this) and so full blame will go on the increasingly unpopular M.Night.

    Don’t forget of course my scaving review of his previous film The Last Airbender in shitfest. Please vote for me i’d like win that one 😀

  4. M Night did write and produce (but not direct) a small budget horror film in 2010 – Devil. Not as unpredictable as The Sixth Sense, but still quite engaging and definitely way better than his recent 3 movies as a director.

    As you pointed out, I think he attained success too early in his career and it probably went to his head. There is a book – The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and Lost by Michael Bamberger that details the making of Lady in the Water.

    Interestingly, Spielberg himself attained success quite early with Jaws. But then, staying humble and keeping a level head may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Having some talent helps too!


    • The interesting thing about Spielberg is that he’s always struck me as a humble person. He’s had many major successes throughout his career, but it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. He just seems like a guy who takes joy in the art of creating movies.

  5. Entertainment brings us to a different world
    and feeds our desire for illusion and an escape from real living .
    This is especially correct for entertainment which is more public or provided by the press and entertainment provided by films ,
    theatre , music , and all forms of innovative art.

  6. I also skipped this in the theaters, for the same reasons you did, but I recently rented it on Blu-Ray, the day it was released in that format no less. And it is every bit as bad as advertised.

    So is it the end of M.Night’s career? I don’t know. He’s not going to get feature billing anymore (5 major and consecutive flops doesn’t help anyone) and he’ll have a more difficult time attracting A-List stars. (The only reason he got Will Smith for this one is that it’s Smith’s story and Smith’s project.)

    He might get one or two more projects, at far reduced budgets, and likely without major studio distribution, but his leash has to be short now. Very short.

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