How is it that a director as powerful as M. Night Shyamalan, who receives large budgets to play with and started off with what is seen as his debut, The Sixth Sense (he made two films prior, but they were so little known that no one even noticed, I guess), receiving an insane cacophony of praise straight out of the gates. Shyamalan landed in a way that maybe no director EVER has, his first film marking the making of ‘The New Spielberg’ as he was called. So how is it that he fell off as much as he has? How does a director who dropped a nuclear bomb on Hollywood with his debut now become one of the most hated in mainstream cinema?
It’s more simple than you’d expect, and the responsibility for this fall from grace is mixed between the creators behind the screen and the audiences watching them (or, not watching them in some cases – we’ll get onto this later.) Let’s go back a little and lay out the context before discussing After Earth. Shyamalan absolutely explodes onto the scene with The Sixth Sense – the critical acclaim is huge, audiences love it, the film is nominated for six Oscars and it was the second highest grossing film of 1999 just below the first Star Wars prequel… and it came from a director nobody knew until then. Needless to say, the expectations for Shyamalan’s next film were so high that they were essentially unconquerable, and yet, Unbreakable came out just a year later. Whilst the level of attention and the box office numbers were far from being as notable as they were for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable did receive a lot of acclaim from both audiences and critics (more so from critics, but audiences still seemed to generally enjoy the movie a lot).
Things continued this way for a few years, Shyamalan made a film, it did well, the cycle continues… until 2006. By now, Shyamalan was recognised for his auteur traits of course, the plot twist being the main culprit, his consistent use of Bruce Willis as protagonist having subsided. 2006 is where things fell apart for Shyamalan, starting with the mistake that is Lady In the Water. This was the first Shyamalan film to really get blasted by critics, and audiences soon followed on for the most part, making the film his first real failure. Box office suffered, Shyamalan’s reputation was torn to shreds, etc. Why? There are a mixture of reasons that most didn’t warm up to Lady in the Water, the main ones being the script and the dreary performances. I personally don’t think it’s a terrible movie, but it’s probably M. Night’s worst as it just feels… distinctly off compared to his other work.
The Happening arrived two years later and, again, was blown to pieces. This time because of the performances. Shyamalan tried playing around and experimenting with what he could get away with, and it simply backfired – lessons learned, for certain. And then The Last Airbender occurred, and this sealed together a trilogy of awkwardly acted, not particularly poorly constructed films but not exactly impressively put together either. The Last Airbender was torn apart even more than the two films that preceded it for two reasons; the first being that Shyamalan’s lacking quality was something now essentially bet on by critics and audiences alike, the second being that this was a much more profile film adapting a dearly beloved source.
So, we finally arrive to After Earth and… hell, what would you be expecting from a director who has fumbled three times in a row despite the fact that their career started in a way so positive that no one has ever really matched? Again, critics tore it up and shredded the remains, and audiences followed. YouTube critics in particular made longer video criticisms of the film, notably YMS who is known primarily for longer criticism videos on films generally hated by film fans. However (and this finally links back to the question of who is really watching…), film fans have found that with any film generally hated, people actually pretend to have seen them and spout how terrible they are despite having never sat through a single scene, never mind the entire film. People have posted on social medias in the past in an attempt to root these people out, creating a scene in the post that isn’t in the film and saying how terrible it is and seeing as people comment in agreement about the scene and prove that they’re talking about a film they haven’t seen. Film criticism is dead, maybe, but it does help if people bother to see films before commenting on them as if they have… but I digress, let’s talk about the positives surrounding the film.
After Earth, despite what you may have heard, is a beautiful movie in almost every sense of the word. Taking pages out of the book of Werner Herzog (particularly from Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and the underrated Rescue Dawn which is a stunner too), among others, the movie uses wide lenses and absolutely stunning set designs to usher in a totally unique look, one drenched in gorgeous greens and blues (in contrast to the deep greys and the bland camouflage colours of the world that humans have moved to after Earth) and to create a distinct look (something rarely done in mainstream cinema nowadays, or even cinema in general outside of non-narrative work). Will Smith (who I spoke about more in terms of why his work is often blasted in my look at Gemini Man quite recently – let’s just say that those same reasons stand) and son Jaden star in the main roles, building a clear father/son bond both on and off the screen whilst the narrative and the themes instead focus in on fear and the effects of it.
The entire film shares this focus – fear spreading through generations (fear being hereditary) and how this anxiety can manifest itself to the point that we become debilitated. As someone who struggled a great deal with anxiety for two years, seeing such a film in the midst of that state was a game changer – to have Shyamalan directly address the impacts of fear and nerves and how they literally alter how we see the world (made more literal in the film, as is the magic of cinema!) made a tremendous difference, and this only added to the already genuinely overwhelming beauty of the visuals alone, never mind the themes surrounding recovery from loss and domestic trouble. After Earth is one of the most beautiful films of the 21st century, and one of the most overlooked (as seems to be the way for many of my personal favourites of the 21st century so far, unfortunately… but we’ll speak about that more as time continues to pass!), and it seems that so much of the reasoning behind this harsh hatred directed at the film comes from people who haven’t always even seen it. The same goes for some of Shyamalan’s other work, too, but never is it more apparent than with After Earth how the internet can impact a film in terms of reception. It’s definitely not out of the way to think that many people avoid the film now because of its reputation despite the fact that that reputation is caused in part by people who went into the film expecting it to be terrible and others who didn’t even bother to see it. If any film begs the importance of maintaining an open mind, it might be this one.