All of that said, I remain somewhat more appreciative of M. Night Shyamalans films than the general public. I enjoyed the mostly dismissed Lady in the Water and seem to be about the only critic in the world who had good things to say about The Last Airbender. What you cannot deny is that Shyamalan is a fairly reasonable director in efforts like The Sixth Sense and The Village, he manages to pull off some intensely atmospheric and spooky scenes. As a writer, Shyamalans preoccupations with matters of predestination and the meaning of it all get undeniably woolly-headed but it is also undeniably fascinating to watch him play with ideas and try concepts out. He is one of the few writers out there in the fantastic genre who is creating original material rather than recycling other works and he seems willing to look at big questions about existence and the meaning of it all, which is something that you could search the collective works of Michael Bay, Stephen Sommers, Paul W.S. Anderson and a dozen other genre directors for in vain. In both The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan creates entire worlds, filled not just with distinctive design schemes but background texture, argot and ways of thinking rather than most science-fiction/fantasy works that simply place contemporary attitudes and characters into slightly unusual settings. Works like The Village and Lady in the Water create fascinating original mythologies to go with their scenarios. One suspects that the anti-Shyamalan buzz is simply the fact that he is working on big budget films. If he were operating as a medium or low-budget director/writer and turning out works that didnt have such high expectation heaped on them ie. requiring audiences to shell out $12-15 a ticket to watch he would probably have become a cult name. Indeed, you suspect more than anything that the negative word of mouth for The Last Airbender was simply audiences reacting against its shitty post-production conversion to 3D, which was quickly conducted in a bid to take advantage of the new fad seen flat, it is a different film altogether.
After Earth is a film that comes heavily backed by its star Will Smith where M. Night Shyamalan gives all appearance of being less an original creative force than a hired gun. Will Smith produces the film through his Overstreet Productions company banner, while the producers consist of Smiths long-time business partner James Lassiter, his wife Jada Pinkett and her brother Caleeb Pinkett. Moreover, the film stars Smith and his fourteen year-old son Jaden. Jaden has been trying to maintain a career as an actor ever since appearing opposite Will in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) where they also played father and son. He subsequently appeared in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) and most notably took on the lead in the remake of The Karate Kid (2010). Aside from that, he has also started to follow his fathers footsteps as a rapper and has released several singles, while also starting his own clothing line. Certainly, going by Jaden Smiths (lack of) performances to date, the only reason he has obtained such roles is purely down to nepotism. I would like to see someone who exudes so little in the way of basic acting skill try to get as far as he has without having the name and connections of a big superstar daddy to draw on.
After Earth seemed to accrue a good deal of negative critical buzz upon opening where it was interpreted as being a pro-Scientology film. A number of reviews dismissed it as Will Smiths equivalent of John Travoltas Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000). There are a few problems with this. The first of these is that there is no clear proof that Will Smith is an adherent of Scientology. He has donated money to some Scientology centres and spoken out to defend his good friend Tom Cruise, even stated that Scientology has some good ideas to it. However, he has never come out as associating with the cause in any direct way in fact, his only actual words on the matter have been to explicitly deny that he is a member. Certainly, his other actions do sit on a line of ambiguity but it is a stretch from that to come out and label Smith as a Scientologist. That has not stopped a number of critics from making specious claims about After Earth being a pro-Scientology film where such aspects as Smiths guiding Jaden from a spaceship control centre is compared to an auditing session; where the films theme about seeking perfect control of ones fear is seen as espousing a central Scientology tenet; even the ridiculous connection made between the exploding volcano in the background at the climax and the image on the cover of L. Ron Hubbards Dianetics (1950). All I can say is well maybe. Only Smith really knows what he believes I didnt see any particular Scientology recruiting commercial while watching After Earth and never made the associations until I read other comments afterwards.
The issue of control of ones fear is certainly an interesting idea that makes for a unique plot element. Rather than Scientology, it feels more like Shyamalan and co-writer Gary Whitta, who also wrote The Book of Eli (2010), a film it should be noted came with a Christian (as opposed to Scientologist) agenda, having inhaled too much in the way of Tony Robbins, Werner Erhard and various other self-improvement gurus. Indeed, this fascination with being able to become a mental superman through controlling states of mind is something that goes way back to the science-fiction of the 1940s and writers like John Campbell, A.E. Van Vogt and yes the pulp output of L. Ron Hubbard. For that matter, it is something that is an essential tenet of fairly much any martial arts training movie. The idea of the Rangers could easily have been borrowed from tvs Babylon 5 (1992-8) where they were seen as akin to monks who had attained superhuman abilities through the exercise of self-control, while you could also point to the Jedi training sequences in the various Star Wars films and in particular the gom jabbar test in the opening scene of Frank Herberts Dune (1965) see Dune (1984) and Dune (2000).
Without reading any particularly deeper religious propaganda into it, I enjoyed After Earth. It shares very similar territory to Will Smiths good buddy Tom Cruises Oblivion (2013) from a couple of months earlier both are films about the last two people left on a deserted future Earth. (When you think about it, Oblivion with its left field twist ending is far more of a M. Night Shyamalan-esque film than After Earth, which is more of a straightforward planetary adventure). M. Night Shyamalan directs a satisfyingly solid show. The universe he creates is a uniquely original one one that reaches from the production design and technology to the language and ways of thinking employed by the characters and does what good science-fiction should in transporting an audience to a different place. The dialogue is taut and distinctive in a way that immediately suggests a familiar but very different world.
Say what you like about M. Night Shyamalan but I will defend him and happily say he doesnt make a wrong step in any of After Earth. The major complaint you have with the film is its father and son acting team. Jaden Smith is simply a non-actor. He plays the entire part with a dopey indifference like the non-achiever kid who sullenly sits at the back of the class, making zero effort and greeting every attempt to ask him a question with a blankness. He gives all the impression of being shoehorned into the part by his father and passes through the show frequently giving the impression that he resents being there. By contrast, Will Smith is a seasoned pro and comes across with an effortless charisma in all of his screen performances. He has reigned that in here and gives a performance that seems tightly bound by military discipline. Moreover, it is a performance where the scripting choice places Will in the backseat and has him confined to a control room for the bulk of the film while Jaden handles the more physical scenes, where in fact it surely makes far better box-office sense that it should be Will out there in the midst of the action.
(Nominee for Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2013 Awards).