“This Is the End” is already the title of an upcoming James Franco comedy about the end of the world, but it might make a more apt designation for another post-apocalyptic movie. “After Earth,” the latest labored effort from the increasingly cataclysmic M. Night Shyamalan, is opening this weekend to a slew of expected critical pans.
“Junky,” “shapeless,” “bland,” “terrible,” “lethargic,” “predictable” and “exceedingly cheesy” are just a few of the terms being bandied about to describe the Will Smith/Jaden Smith actioner -- and those are just from the mainstream critics. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what’s being said on social media, but here’s a small taste:
@mnightshyamalan if another studio gives you money to make another movie after this new bomb. Then we all know you sold your soul to satan
â€” Cesarious III (@cesarious28) May 31, 2013
Anyway you frame it, this is not good news for Shyamalan, once regarded as a brilliant auteur whose mastery of suspense and knack for the mind-blowing twist ending were on par with the likes of Hitchcock. The downward trajectory of the filmmaker’s critical accolades since “The Sixth Sense” thrust him into the national consciousness in 1999 is well-documented, and there’s no reason to beat the dead horse of Shyamalan-bashing here. But it’s worth asking if any sound-minded producer will take another chance on Shyamalan in light of what seems to be a never-ending slump.
“After Earth” currently holds a 14 percent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. That’s bit of an uptick from the 6 percent score for 2010’s “The Last Airbender,” but it’s still lower than the 17 percent score for 2008’s “The Happening” and the 24 percent for 2006’s “Lady In the Water.” Indeed, the last time a Shyamalan picture received a score above 50 percent was in 2002 with the alien-invasion drama “Signs,” which currently holds a 74 percent rating. That’s more than a decade of critical flops.
Shyamalan still has his defenders, of course. In an interview with the International Business Times last year, Carrie Rickey, a film critic from Shyamalan’s hometown of Philadelphia, called the harsh appraisals of Shyamalan’s work “knee-jerk wisdom,” contradicted by the fact that some of his poorly reviewed films -- “The Village,” for instance -- performed quite well at the box office. But knee-jerk wisdom is a difficult thing to neutralize, and each new Shyamalan project seems to find fewer and fewer people willing to hold out hope that this one, finally, will represent a return to form.
That anyone still cares at this point is a testament to the great work Shyamalan produced early in his career and to the promise he once held for American cinema, which is in more need of visionary auteurs now than it ever was. On that note, it’s hard not to compare Shyamalan to the late, great Tennessee Williams, who endured years of late-career critical thrashings after the intoxicating success of his early works, which included “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Despite the fact that Williams rolled out flop after flop in the 1960s and 1970s, critics kept coming back for more, like heroin addicts hoping for one last rush. They got it in 1981 with “A House Not Meant to Stand,” Williams’ final play, which opened to strong reviews at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
Not that anyone is wishing Shyamalan will go down the same path as Williams. The man choked to death in a hotel room, for Pete’s sake. But those of us who saw “The Sixth Sense” in a dark theater without the impediment of spoilers to ruin the big reveal will never forget that “oh-em-gee” moment when we were conked over the head with Shyamalan’s gift for cinematic sleight of hand. Of course, Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time. Why didn’t we see it?
Was it all just a bit of dumb luck from a one-trick pony? Perhaps. But to many a former Shyamalan fan -- even those with the means to shell out money to produce his next effort -- the promise that he could still pull out another trick might just be worth the risk. And if not, Mr. Shyamalan, there’s always Kickstarter. Wouldn't that be a twist?