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After Earth, the new movie from director M. Night Shyamalan, arrives in theaters this weekend…but you wouldn’t know it’s one of his films by watching the trailer. The filmmaker’s name is almost completely absent from the trailers and advertisements, and all this week we here at Cinema Blend are trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Mack blames The Village. Sean cites The Happening, and Eric says Unbreakable is where Shyamalan's cinema went off the rails. Kristy drew the line at The Last Airbender. Today, Rich is stepping up to defend Shyamalan.
People are way too hard on M. Night Shyamalan. There, I said it. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand why lots of people boo his name whenever they see it on the big screen, as his films after Unbreakable (Some, like Eric, would even say his films after The Sixth Sense) have gone downhill. But he really isn’t that bad. People just like to hate on him. So, why do I still support him then?
Well, let me explain. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan used to like to play "gotcha" a lot with the audience, as Mack talked about in his discussion of The Village. But, like Mack also wrote, M. Night Shyamalan is not a bad director. Whether he’s a good storyteller or not is debatable, but again, the man knows how to direct. Even watching his worst film, The Happening, you can see that Shyamalan knows how to piece together scenes well. So it’s not his directing that people hate. It’s his inability to reach the staggering heights that he set for himself with the The Sixth Sense. But I tell you, he still has the potential to make a stellar, crowd-pleasing film. The proof is in the filmography.
Let’s start with Signs, which is a film I’m actually not too fond of. Shyamalan did a great job with directing Mel Gibson and making him believable as a former Episcopal priest (Just read that line again. Mel Gibson plays a believable former priest), and Joaquin Phoenix can do no wrong. But it’s the pacing and build-up that I want to talk about here, because honestly, they’re great in Signs. The fear M. Night ratchets up, especially with that scene where you actually see the alien in Brazil, was definitely unsettling upon the first viewing. That said, the ending sucked, and that’s all anybody ever talks about. They wanted to be shocked like they were with The Sixth Sense. They didn’t want to slap their foreheads (Please tell me again why aliens that are allergic to water would try to invade a planet that’s almost entirely full of it). That was strike one for most people, even though, ending notwithstanding, it was a pretty decent film.
Mack already discussed the pratfalls of The Village, but again, that’s not a bad movie, either. It’s just underwhelming. And so is Lady in the Water, even though I liked that film immensely. In many ways, Lady in the Water was to be his penance for his previous two pictures. Most most people thought it put the nail in the coffin for him, but I disagree. It was a truly eerie tale, but most couldn’t get over the fact that M. Night gave himself a prominent role in the film, and not only that, he wrote himself in as a writer who would eventually change the world. I mean, jeez, did you want people to throw tomatoes at you, Mr. Shyamalan?
Here’s a man who basically ignored what the critics said about his diminishing writing skills, and forgot that the general public felt much the same way. His arrogance was staggering, and that’s yet another reason why people hate him—They think he’s a pompous fool who doesn’t deserve any more funding for his passion projects. But again, even if he was pretty arrogant at the time, that doesn’t detract from his work, and Lady in the Water is not a terrible film. The setting was moody, the actors did a good enough job, and the ending, in my mind, was actually satisfying because Shyamalan ditched the whole twist thing and played it straight, offering a conclusion that promised what it led up to. With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan actually showed growth as a director. Still, people to this day refuse to re-watch it because most, by this point, thought Shyamalan was a one trick pony who got lucky with The Sixth Sense. Again, I disagree, as each of his films has at least been interesting in some way, if not entirely good. Not every director can make the claim that all of their films have a cool premise. In fact, damn few many can.
Let’s just skip over The Happening, because yes, like Sean says, it’s a truly terrible film with Godawful acting (Mark Wahlberg has never been worse), and a stilted conclusion. Let’s just jump right to The Last Airbender, which was his first film that wasn’t based solely on his own imagination. Now, I love the cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s one of the smartest cartoons that has ever aired on TV. And, if you look past the poor casting and the fact that many of the characters names weren’t even pronounced correctly (Really? “Aong” instead of “Aang”? “Soaka” instead of “Sokka”?), it was actually a pretty commendable effort on the first book of the series. It hit all the major beats of the season. Really, what else could you possibly want?
Well, a lot, apparently, as it’s probably his most hated film. That is, of course, for those who even saw it, as most people checked out by that point. But here’s why you should definitely check back in. Devil, for which he wrote the original story but didn’t direct, was a return to form for Shyamalan. It was a thoroughly creepy film that was well-thought out and plotted. Broken down, it was pretty much everything we love about Shyamalan (his ideas) and none of what we hate about him, his current writing - the screenplay was written by Brian Nelson. It was the perfect blend.
And with After Earth, we have yet another film not entirely written by Shyamalan. And the idea is not even his, as Will Smith came up with it. Honestly, this has me really excited as this is the first film Shyamalan has directed with very little involvement in the screenplay. Like I mentioned earlier, his greatest strength at this point is his direction, and I have faith that he’ll do a stellar job in that department for AE. I’m super excited. This could be his (second) big break if it’s successful. And I think it will be successful, for one thing, it stars Will Smith, and for another, M. Night Shyamalan is a genuinely good director who has fallen on some hard times. But I still think he has the potential to do great things. Hopefully, he can bring some of you back to being fans. And if not, at least he’ll always have me. I never stopped being one.
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