On the people before and behind the camera. And the question of why it has become fashionable to hate M Night Shyamalan
Poor Earth. You’d think it’s already bedevilled by an expanding population, melting icecaps, a shrinking ozone layer, and a few questionable nuclear programmes — and now Hollywood just won’t let it be. Two apocalyptic thrillers this summer — After Earth (note that damning preposition; not before, not during, but after) and World War Z — inflict unimaginable horrors on the planet. And yet, the biggest lesson that these films offer isn’t ecological or existential but sidereal: cast a big star and you won’t go broke.
After Earth was hit by dreadful reviews that just stopped short of leaping off the page, rolling themselves up and smacking potential viewers on the head. (The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern began with this question: “Is After Earth the worst movie ever made?”) But the film’s worldwide grosses, while not exactly spectacular, prove that Will Smith is far way from being written off. Anyone can deliver a hit with a well-acclaimed, well-made movie. But to steer a bomb away from total career-annihilation? That takes a real star.
The bigger revelation, though, is how the tide has turned against the film’s director. After I watched the movie, I was baffled. Why were the reviews so toxic? Has M Night Shyamalan Bashing become an accepted sport? The film I saw was nowhere close to great, but it was nowhere as terrible as the reviews suggested either — and the one thing that stands out is the direction.
Look at the storyline. A man and his son (Will Smith and Jaden Smith, whom The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw lovingly described as playing the role with a face like a smacked bum) crash-land on a dangerous planet named... Earth. Father is hurt. He cannot move. Son has to trek to the tail of the craft and retrieve the signalling beacon, using his survival skills while avoiding dangers along the way (giant creatures, breathing trouble, extreme cold, and so forth). Nothing extraordinary here. A linear story. No surprises. Essentially a glorified video game. As plots go, all this one needs is a PlayStation.
But Shyamalan makes it a movie. In a sense, he is very much a director-for-hire here, but After Earth is not as shockingly impersonal as, say, the recent films of Tim Burton have been. (After Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, hasn’t the once-great Burton come to resemble a director-for-hire, replacing a genuinely personal vision with a generic blockbuster template?) This is still the work of the Shyamalan who became known to us through The Sixth Sense, and went on to make his greatest film, Unbreakable, before setting out on a path of diminishing returns.
But even his worst films — I haven’t seen The Last Airbender, so I cannot talk about that — have been characterised by a very distinct (and yes, personal) style, whose signature elements are a slow, spooky pace, a father figure crippled by stasis, and careful employment of background music. And we are slowly sucked into this ridiculous premise. Anyone can make a movie from a well-written script. But to steer a potential bomb away from implosion? That takes a real filmmaker.
How can critics not see that the problem lies not with Shyamalan’s filmmaking skills but with the material (which he either writes himself, with increasingly painful “twist endings,” or is handed over)? And what would he do with something like World War Z, which could use all his signature tricks? This isn’t a video-game premise, though it certainly sounds like one with its one-line summary of zombies attacking the good people of... Earth.
And in the Brad Pitt character, we have another father figure in stasis, someone with a certain power but unwilling (or unable) to use it at present. Had Shyamalan made the film (instead of Marc Forster), would it have gotten worse reviews? I realise I am harping on the same point, but I simply cannot get over the reviews for After Earth, which suggest something larger at work than just the response to a somewhat underwhelming film. Haven’t these critics seen worse films? Haven’t they seen Battlefield Earth?
Now that I’ve let off steam that’s been building for a while, World War Z is another film whose box-office prospects were brightened by its star, who now has a terrific track record of opening unusual mainstream films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Moneyball and Inglourious Basterds. World War Z isn’t a headache-inducing special effects extravaganza, but a thoughtful little action movie with a mother who instructs her husband to not indulge in shop talk in front of the kids, and a father torn between saving the world and saving his family.
Yes, there are crowds of zombies who, provoked by noise, churn with the force and the liquid ease of tidal waves — but nothing about the way the film has been made screams blockbuster. Nothing except Pitt. Even when he’s playing a hero on a human scale, he’s able to make a more impressive statement than the star of a superhero movie. Anyone can make a hit by saving... Earth. But to attract hordes of ticket-buyers by playing a version of themselves? That takes a real star.