After Auteur: How M. Night Shyamalan Became Just Another Director
Wait, you didn’t know that After Earth, the Will Smith–Jaden Smith sci-fi adventure hitting theaters this weekend, is the latest from Shyamalan, he of The Sixth Sense fame and Lady in the Water infamy? Columbia Pictures has done everything in its power, in both trailers and print and TV advertisements, to hide that information.
It’s a stunning—and, naysayers would say, deserved—reversal of fortune for the director, a former wunderkind who made his name a brand with early, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-audiences hits but who has now sunk so low that his participation in a tent-pole release is actively concealed.
In the history of cinema, it’s difficult to think of a single filmmaker with a lucrative career built on signature auteurist elements who’s been relegated to anonymous work-for-hiredom as blatantly as Shyamalan has been here. His involvement masked from view, and his fingerprints largely wiped clean from the project, it raises the question of why Shyamalan was hired for the project if he wasn’t really wanted in the first place.
It’s an ignominious fall for a director who was once compared—amazingly, and by straight-faced critics—to Hitchcock. Those proclamations were always over-the-top, far too in thrall to his patient (if portentous) framing and his gimmicky narratives, which devolved into self-parody just a couple movies in.
Defenders be damned, Shyamalan was always a one-trick pony, offering up ostensibly ordinary characters in literal and spiritual crisis whose circumstances were ultimately revealed to be far different than they initially appeared. That device grew tiresome the more times it was employed, until the director went over the edge with 2006’s Lady in the Water, a mushy fairy tale in which he cast himself as a writer with world-changing power.
That arrogant conception of himself also came through in his public persona, as when, before the release of Lady in the Water, he told Time magazine, “If you’re not betting on me, then nobody should get money. I’ve made profit a mathematical certainty. I’m the safest bet you got.”
Hubris like that is destined for a correction, and after the flops of Lady in the Water and 2008’s ridiculous The Happening—which aims to generate suspense from a confused-looking Mark Wahlberg and vacant Zooey Deschanel trying to flee the wind—it seemed Shyamalan’s career had finally hit a wall. His response: a CG-heavy adaptation of The Last Airbender, a children’s anime property. While the director capably handled the elaborate, action-oriented special effects the film entailed, its horrific 3D conversion and tough-to-follow storytelling buried it at the box office in 2010. With that mainstream bid a failure, and with no one interested in enduring any more of his third-act-revelation thrillers, Shyamalan’s once-formidable career seemed as dead as Bruce Willis’s Sixth Sense protagonist. (Spoiler!)
Turning to more conventional material seems logical, and After Earth certainly fits that mold. Set 1,000-plus years in the future, it concerns the efforts of super-soldier Cypher (Will Smith) and his wannabe-badass son, Kitai (played by Smith’s own son, Jaden), to survive and come of age, respectively, after crash-landing on Earth, which was long ago deserted by humanity and is now overrun by dangerous animals.
Its milieu defined by the Avatar playbook, and predicated on a mentor-mentee father-son relationship that’s as old as the hills, the alterna-Earth premise feels blandly safe—hardly a surprise given that the project was begat not by Shyamalan (who does get a co-screenwriting credit) but by the elder Smith, who conceived of the idea and spearheaded the production. Narrative shocks be damned, the film’s guiding voice is its star’s, with the director relegated to that of an anonymous craftsman whose very hallmarks—languorous pacing, bleak color palettes and the atmospheric dread that comes from those choices—have mostly been discarded.
That such an approach wouldn’t fit an adventure-oriented film like After Earth is undeniable. Yet there’s something more at work here—a belief, by Columbia and (by extension) all of Hollywood, that Shyamalan’s defining narrative and aesthetic styles are a liability. The fact that he’s still considered a viable directorial steward for a summer spectacle may speak to his enduring craftsmanship, or perhaps the number of friendships he has—and the wealth of favors he’s still owed—in the industry. Regardless, his absence from the marquee of After Earth remains, in a career predicated on surprises, the greatest twist so far.
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