After Earth: Buzz around After Earth is quiet—a little, as the cliché goes, too quiet. The hush can probably be attributed to M. Night Shyamalan, the secret director and cowriter of this Will n’ Jaden Smith sci-fi story, both because Shyamalan’s films tend to unfold in an eerie hush, and because Sony seems to be hiding the filmmaker’s presence following a downward spiral that would make Rob Reiner blush. Box office-wise, Shyamalan has only really had one outright bomb: Lady in the Water, his misguided 2006 passion project that, to be fair, might not have made any money even if it was actually good. The Happening may be widely derided, but it limped to $64 million after a decent opening. The Last Airbender may have been insanely terrible, but it made twice as much. But in a way, Shyamalan’s enviable financial track-record might provide something worse: a series of not very good movies that were sold on his name to a fair number of people.
To some small extent, I do feel that Shyamalan has gotten some kind of a bad rap. This isn’t the prelude to a major In Defense type piece; in fact, quite to the contrary, I can pinpoint exactly where the writer-director loses it: smack in the middle of The Village, which is stylish and creepy and beautifully acted for its first half before twisting itself out of atmospheric thriller territory and straight into the bad Twilight Zone zone. But that does point the way toward the unfair treatment of Shyamlan’s work, based mainly on the bizarre categorization of anything that happens in his movie as a “twist.” You can argue that the aliens being allergic to water in Signs is kind of stupid or arbitrary, sure, but it’s not a “twist ending.” It’s just an ending. Similarly, I heard lots of derisive chatter about how the “twist” of The Happening was that plants were responsible for the story’s horrific violence. I’m not saying it’s a good movie, but they tell you that plants are causing mass suicides like halfway through. It’s not a twist. It’s an explanation. Kind of a stupid explanation, yes! But while many twists are stupid, all stupid explanations are not twists! Mark Wahlberg’s character turning out to be a tree himself: that would be a twist. I guarantee whatever actually happens in After Earth will be somehow derided as a twist (or if absolutely nothing can be gleaned that way, a bunch of people will go “wait, that’s it?!”).
Of course, beyond showcasing the director’s name in ads, Sony doesn’t appear super-confident about After Earth in general, as it seems to have been under pretty strict embargo. I think the release-date shuffle that moved it off of June 7th and onto this weekend was probably a mistake, just like every last-minute release-date shuffle this summer so far. It was moved off of June 7th presumably to keep from getting crushed by Man of Steel on its second weekend, but right now it seems like a toss-up over whether Man of Steel or Fast and Furious 6 will do bigger week-two numbers—and with this earlier date, After Earth becomes the fifth big-ticket action-ish movie in as many weeks. (June 7th has unintentionally become the breather weekend that sometimes follows Memorial Day, with only The Internship and The Purge set to open. Really, those movies should have swapped with that slot’s original occupants, Earth and Now You See Me.)
Then again, Will Smith all but guarantees a decent opening. He should be at least able to power this movie to second-tier Tom Cruise numbers—not unlike Cruise himself did with the unfortunately similar-looking Oblivion a month or so back. And for the first time since hopes for The Happening were dashed in 2008, I am wondering just what’s up with the new M. Night Shyamalan movie (or, for that matter, the new Will Smith movie; kind of a bummer that his antidote for a four-year absence was Men in Black III). Smith makes a lot of safe choices, but he rarely allows movies to go recent-Shymalan-level wrong; that’s what makes those choices safe, after all. Will he quality-control the writer-director back on the path to respectability, or just turn a distinctive talent (yes, talent! I can’t describe anyone who made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs as untalented!) into a gun for hire?