When The Sixth Sense was first released back in 1999, critics and audiences alike were almost unanimous in their admiration of the film. It’s smart ghost story and “that” twist ending had everyone on tenterhooks. Its writer and director, M.Night Shyamalan was a star, and soon enough everyone wanted a piece of him.
Following it up with arguably his best work, 2000’s Unbreakable that reteamed him with Sixth Sense star Bruce Willis, was a smart and thoughtful take on comic-book mythology and, indirectly, Superman. Another notable success followed with Signs, and the world was Shyamalan’s oyster. That was until 2004′s The Village started to make us wonder what path he was going down and then 2006’s The Lady In The Water, a film that was his first dud. Uneven, disjointed and dull, Lady was the first sign that The Shyamalan train was beginning to run out of gas.
But it wasn’t until the double-whammy of The Happening, starring the unfortunate Mark Wahlberg, and The Last Airbender, that really saw the director’s credentials take a battering, and led people to believe that the bubble had truly burst. Both were voted as the worst films of their respected years, and despite their decent box office receipts (Airbender somehow taking over $300million worldwide), are widely considered the downfall of M.Night.
With After Earth’s release, many were once again fearful of what the two hours of Shyamalan science fiction would bring. While it may not be the train-wreck that critics feared, it isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. Even in a largely perfunctory role, and with a terrible accent to boot, it’s never a chore watching Will Smith on screen. Sure, his part as a survivor of Earth’s demise is the least amount of real acting that Smith has done in his career (even ID4 gave him some great lines), and has been touted by many as Smith’s first real “vanity” project, but his magnetism and effortless charm is the only thing that keeps After Earth afloat and marginally watchable.
Shymalan’s writing and direction, however, is as ponderous and lacklustre as anything he has done previously, and again does nothing to disprove the theory that the director really did get lucky back in 1999. The box office receipts for After Earth have been poor, with the film dropping 61% in the US over the last weekend to bring its total to just $43million, a long way from its rumored $150million budget. It has had slightly better news in the UK, with the film at No.1 in its opening weekend, but it seems to be simply a case of papering over the cracks.
Can Shyamalan really bounce back after another bomb? There has been talk of him finally revisiting Unbreakable with a reported sequel, but you can’t help but fear that it may all be a little too late to save his flagging career. He is a storyteller amongst everything else, and it could be argued that his best chance of survival lies here, creating something on the page that harks back to this early success. He has many a tale to tell for sure, but he may be better served leaving the directing game to others for the time being.
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