I haven’t seen M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth,” the reported $150 million sci-fi survival narrative starring Will Smith and his son Jaden that made just a fraction of that amount at the box office this weekend. I also didn’t bother with Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” his previous directing credit. After “The Happening,” reports suggested that the filmmaker had lost the intrigue that made his work so attractive in the first place. I couldn’t bring myself to confront the change. Even though “The Happening” and, god help us, “Lady in the Water” had their rampant absurdities, they were Shyamalan’s absurdities: ideas that existed primarily to set in motion an array of frantic reactions and paranoia.
His penchant for third act twists, though they became derided as clichés, reflected a genuine interest in showmanship that actively defied predictable Hollywood formulas. In “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs” and even parts of “The Village,” nobody shook up familiar genre ingredients in the context of studio filmmaking with more offbeat strangeness than Shyamalan. With the minimalist post-apocalyptic scenario of “After Earth,” for all I know Shyamalan has returned to his roots, though a good amount of trustworthy sources suggest otherwise. If the industry adheres to a three-strikes-you’re-out philosophy, Shyamalan’s rise and fall could mark the final nail in the coffin of a slowly dying career — or, if he takes the excuse of another flop to shift directions, the start of a new one.
A throwaway line from a recent interview suggests that the director already has the right idea. Talking to MTV last week, Shyamalan called his mysterious next project “a little micro-[budget] film” involving familial discord. With no details announced yet, one can assume this project is in its early stages. Meanwhile, he also recently worked on a television show called “Proof,” collaborating with Marti Noxon, a writer “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” While Shyamalan’s thinking things through, he may want to use the lull between projects to check out another achievement from the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” team: Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which hits theaters this Friday.
Like Shyamalan, Whedon has been tethered to storytelling expectations for much of his career, though his rabid fan base has yet to abandon him. Whedon’s female-centric supernatural narratives have taken on an epic scope by way of their expansive nature on television, yet they’ve also maintained a playfulness steeped in old-fashioned wordplay and a comedy of manners that give his characters permanence. That skill carried over surprisingly well into the blockbuster realm with Whedon’s “The Avengers,” certainly the best mass produced, CGI-laden spectacle released last year. Yet watching “The Avengers,” it was hard not to imagine Whedon grasping his integrity for dear life. This had to be the hardest project he ever made.
Which is why, in the immediate aftermath of “The Avengers,” Whedon shot a black-and-white, contemporary take on Shakespeare’s romantic comedy in his house over the course of 12 days. When I saw “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was mostly underwhelmed by the slightness of the project. Yet Whedon’s faithfulness to the still-potent material and the slapstick talents of a dedicated ensemble familiar from his other work elevates the movie’s humor and depth; it’s a blatantly sincere grasp at Whedon’s core appeal, and with its scrappy production values, a downright adorable cleansing of his soul.
Shyamalan could use a hit of that. Prior to “The Happening,” none of the director’s movies relied on huge, effects-driven set pieces (even the train wreck that set the plot of “Unbreakable” in motion took place off-screen). Instead, his disturbed and perpetually spooked protagonists learned of the threats surrounding them by way of whispered revelations and bizarre rationalizations that were more stabs in the dark than anything else. The most compelling ingredients in Shyamalan’s first four movies involved the absence of logic (ghosts, superpowers, God and an antiquated town inexplicably shrouded from civilization) in favor of inexplicable dread. It’s that very same element that made them so deeply unsettling and keyed into real life experiences, where the full details of jarring events tend to be obscured by the limitations of how we comprehend them. Shyamalan now has the money and, if “After Earth” has strengthened the bars of the movie jail in which he was already partly incarcerated, probably the time to go back to these low key stories in search of the substance that made him a significant American director.
This is a direction he should have taken long ago. When I interviewed Shyamalan a few years back, I asked him what was keeping him from simply financing his own projects and leaving the studios behind. “I like their points of view for the right movies,” he said, shortly before churning out a couple wrong ones. But he added a curious side note: “Independent filmmakers are my heroes, and I look for them for integrity and the bar.” Rather than looking at his heroes, Shyamalan has reached a point where he would do better inspecting his own career and taking cues from period that clicked.
And if that doesn’t work, he should just buy a ticket to “Much Ado About Nothing.”