Rarely does a filmmaker provoke so much unwarranted ire and derision as M. Night Shyamalan, a ‘fallen angel’ in popular critical discourse who is generally understood to have peaked with the likes of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, tanked with The Village and Lady in the Water, descended into self-parody with The Happening and delivered the fatal, final blow to his filmic reputation with The Last Airbender. At any rate, Shyamalan’s output generates a certain morbid curiosity among cinemagoers, ushering them into the multiplex with a predetermination to scoff anything the director has portrayed with unabashed personal conviction. It’s a thankless task; I myself tire of the endless articles upon a Shyamalan release that detail his ‘fall from grace’ (an pitfall I am myself briefly acknowledging), rank his films or have their author seemingly take astronomical offence at what they perceive to be the poor quality of his filmography.
His latest sci-fi picture, After Earth, opens itself up to critical targeting because of an impassioned self-belief in its morality play. Shyamalan is sincere albeit hackneyed as can be with his treatment of the thorny relationship between father and son that steadily untangles over the course of 100 minutes, though his tender hand has been unable to fend off the onslaught of negative reviews. His weak spot for critical hammering – casting himself as messiah in Lady in the Water; the entire conceit of The Happening – is here the double casting of Will Smith and his son Jaden, in what appears at first glance to be a Smith family vanity project.
Will Smith plays against upbeat type as an austere space captain with the embarrassing title of Cypher Raige. After crash landing his ship on a long-lost planet Earth, an injured Raige remains on his posterior and guides his son Kitai through Earth’s unforgiving jungles, filled with creepy crawlies, furry frights and a great beast which, to Kitai, epitomises fear itself. Cypher spends a lot of the film looking as if he’s sat on the toilet and not having a particularly good time, while Kitai – in frequent, disorienting closeups – looks as if his failed attempts to find a toilet have met a calamitous end.
The environment is fraught with peril, though it’s nonetheless full with life, possessing at least one more ecosystem than the barren (lazy) wasteland of Joseph Koskinski’s Oblivion. Granted, there are no humans left alive (although there could well be), but this is barely a concern for a planet that’s moved on from the tyranny of human intervention and allowed its natural world to flourish once again. The portrayal is hopeful and trusting in the movements of nature, and devoid of the sort of cynicism that Kosinki adopts in his aping of Wall-E, The Matrix and other lamenting dystopian pictures. Shyamalan gives us no shortage of vantage points from which to admire this vibrant tropical milieu, mostly atop cliff faces where Kitai is either at risk of plummeting or deciding himself to take the leap of faith. Nature is a glorious sight, and Shyamalan’s sharp green blades of grass look the treat, though a good proportion of the ‘real world’ is marred by poor, unconvincing CGI – especially in the case of the wildlife.
There’s something innately Old Testament about the idea of an invisible father commanding his child through a difficult existence, offering neither easy answers, empathy or a concrete visualisation of his own existence. Cypher decrees to his son that ‘fear does not exist’, and there is no reason to cower from the future. Ironically, Cypher is himself mired too deeply in the past, allowing a past traumatic incident to drive a wedge between he and his son. This incident is also where Jaden’s fear originates; in Hollywood, it’s not enough to admit that fear is a natural human sensation. It has to instead be rooted inside a narrative ‘big bang’ – a catalyst that is recalled by each character until eventually vanquished at the film’s conclusion.
It’s another opportunity for Shyamalan to tackle the subject of grief, but in his sickly-sweet handling of a father and son relationship, he almost borders on a benevolence practised by one particularly favoured American filmmaker. The film’s broad emotions and sentimentality, visual clarity and sense of wonder place Shyamalan’s sensibilities in the same camp as Steven Spielberg. Because After Earth possesses this wealth of sincerity and conviction, but wears its feelings openly on its sleeve in the hopes of a viewer embrace, the inevitably hopeful trajectory is at the very least unworthy of a revisit or rethink – and in the case of some over-aggrieved cinemagoers and critics, somehow inexplicably downright insulting.
Why does the very mention of Shyamalan induce such personal offence? When Matt Soller Zeitz, new editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, posted his positive three-and-a-half stars review, he received – in the words of Chaz Ebert – a ‘baptism of fire’. Observe this random user comment: “For you to actually endorse this mind numbing mess, which thank Allah I didn’t have to pay to see is a disgrace to the namesake of this site… if this is the quality of critique we can expect from rogerebert.com, this will be a lonely website very soon.. respectfully..” Of course, add to this the needless abundance of film-grad essays infused with mean-spirited snark and jesting. Here’s a man who, despite turning in a few clunkers, is a far more accomplished visual storyteller than the factory-line hacks currently bending further to the will of industry. The backlash is so extraordinary that the studio had even elected to remove Shyamalan’s name from the film’s marketing in order to avoid a sizeable cultural boycott.
At the very least, After Earth is a confident sci-fi journey that moves at a comfortable enough pace to invite the audience to indulge in its protagonist’s emotional development. It isn’t my sort of film at all, but I’d still recommend it to those young, escapist-inclined idealists disillusioned with joyless dirge fronted by men with anger management issues. Let’s derail the bandwagon and give this filmmaker a grain of respect – however infinitesimal, however begrudging. Inform him he’s made a fairly poor piece of work, by all means, but do let’s keep some perspective.