The header surely gives you an idea what this post is all about. And going by the latest trend, most of you might have skipped M. Night Shyamalan’s latest release, “After Earth”. But Rahul Desai saw it, and he argues that there’s more to him than what the world wants you to believe. Read on.
‘After Earth’ is realistically Shyamalan’s solo follow-up to ‘Lady In The Water’.
The latter was an original fairytale written from scratch by Shyamalan for his daughter, an urban mythical world imagined and created by the filmmaker – based within the confines of an apartment complex. It had fairies, creatures, parallel worlds, rules and characters intertwined with everyday life. It was a fascinating play on children’s classics, and if not for the limited tolerance of many of today’s film analysts, it could stand alone in its right on any illustrated bookshelf across the world. It was very much how a child with vivid imagination would look at today’s routine worldly scenarios, right from a boring stuttering caretaker to an eccentric writer neighbor. With ‘Lady In The Water’, I personally felt that M. Night Shyamalan cemented himself as one of the foremost storytellers of our times, even if his filmmaking wasn’t always as riveting as his writing.
Many called it an intensely personal and boring project, and concluded that he wasn’t the next Hitchcock or Spielberg after all.
It is interesting that while Americans and Hollywood in general rejected this melancholic little tale, countries like France embraced it and gave it glowing reviews – understanding the originality and simplicity at the root of his effort. This is not surprising considering the fact that movies like Avengers, IronMan and Harry Potter rule American box-offices, while the success of Avatar is attributed to more of a global phenomena with its path-breaking technology.
Shyamalan didn’t do himself any favours by making his only big mistake of his career in the name of ‘The Last Airbender’, and became the favorite whipping boy of American critics- who dismissed his films before they even hit screens anymore. This odd allergy even reached Indian shores, where reviewers began to rate his films at par with their own filmmakers dismal commercial projects- when in reality, no single Bollywood filmmaker is even half as original or is a visionary enough to match Shyamalan at his worst. Not to say reviewing is much of an art in countries like India, but this was not the first time they let the West influence their own opinions.
‘After Earth’ was meant to be a simple tale about a son trying to rescue his soldier father in a dangerous forest. Until Will Smith stepped in. It soon became a fantastical visual extravaganza about a son’s journey and redemption on an uninhabited dangerous waste planet named Earth.
Shyamalan took reigns of this project despite it being his first directorial venture not written by him. This was after the disastrous ‘The Last Airbender’- similarly heavy on VFX and mythical madness- and demonstrated Shyamalan’s willingness to step back into the ring for another brave round. Sneers that accompany his name on screen- either as story or screenplay writer of ‘Devil’- were from people who had forgotten that even his worst effort, allegedly ‘The Happening’ or ‘The Village’ was more original and daring than millions of book-to-screen adaptations and special effect orgies hitting the screens lately.
What is noteworthy is the storyteller’s consistent craving to tell and create new stories- not as films or Hollywood blockbusters- but as tales told with a whispering voice by the fireplace on a cold winter night. The seriousness and self-awareness that his stories contain isn’t necessarily a bad thing- with even superhero classics being dumbed down and sexed up for audience votes these days. And yet, Shyamalan is the man solely responsible behind possibly the greatest superhero story of our time- the unassuming and path breaking ‘Unbreakable’. It was the near perfect anti-epic that took the extraordinary-man-in-ordinary-world genre to another level. It used comic books and graphic novels (again a lead up to ‘Lady In The Water’) to illustrate the clear good v/s evil relationship in an unlikely unique tone.
With the amount of preparation put into ‘After Earth’- a 300-page Bible about the history of mankind and their decision to leave Earth (much like Wall-E) written by award-winning comicbook writers- Shyamalan took charge of the immense visual part of the project- blocking and constructing shots with his trademark anticipation-of-fear-is-greater-than-fear-itself style.
The monologues in the film bear a very existential ‘The Village’ feel about them, deconstructing basic human emotions, fear and danger, under the hood of survival and invincibility. At the center of it all was a fractured relationship between a warrior named Cypher Raige who has overcome fear and a son (Kitai Raige) that is struggling to overcome their history. This is portrayed wonderfully by an I-Am-Legend zoned Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden, who impressed all with his physicality and versatile talents in the nth version of Karate Kid a few years ago. The boy’s desire to acquire his destiny- convinced that is it different than others, much like Phoenix in Village, or Gibson in Signs, or Willis in Unbreakable- forms the crux of this post-apocalyptic story. Concepts like ‘ghosting’ and ranger-codes were created, along with the current destructive nature of Earth- all given a form not too dissimilar from the likes of Pandora or wasted Earth in Wall-E.
Yet, Shyamalan’s version of Earth was rejected before even being given a chance, despite Smith and his son carrying on admirably from where they left off in ‘Pursuit of Happyness’. Adjectives like ‘terrible’ and ‘unbearable’ were thrown around carelessly by respected critics like Bradshaw and the likes- in the process only further highlighting the huge dent caused to film criticism after the passing of master Ebert.
In the film, the talented father-son Smith duo make their relationship believable enough to even forgive the disappointment of the rather tame revelation of those-who-we-cannot-speak-of creatures at the end.
The filmmaker’s Hitchcockian awareness of the sheer bone-chilling result of what can be heard but not seen on screen, remains in tact, even in this attempt to tell a story over a vast canvas.
There is a particular scene that involves a big angry bird and Jaden. It portrays the most basic of primal emotions and could seem comical on paper- but Shyamalan’s understanding of when to reveal the bird in conjunction to Jaden’s startled face is second to none. It is a typically underplayed yet important moment in the film. It possesses wordless undertones that pretty much define Katai’s existence uptil then- constructed in a masterfully subtle manner that escape the blind rage of reviewers today. Instruments like adding the audiovisual contact at all times between father and son- letting the father view his son’s journey to manhood at close quarters while being helpless, or the position-mapping technology visible to father but not son- only add to Shyamalan’s impressive ability to manipulate simple visual situations into something far more suspenseful.
His framing has always been a highly underrated skill, and one can only imagine him snatching the screenplay away from the original writers to give it his own signature.
His use of a rousing background score still manages to tell its own individual story- words that cannot be read between the lines even on paper.
Often enough, his obsession with twist endings and surprise climaxes that try to convince the viewer that it was happening all along has led to his overambitious downfall- but the manner in which he uses dramatic orchestral themes at every single crucial second of such climaxes will be appreciated in the years to come, just like ‘Lady In The Water’ and ‘After Earth’ are destined to become perfect Sunday afternoon family viewings/storybook sessions for generations of Americans kids whose ancestors scoffed at a brooding serious auteur South-Indian writer that once told a slow-burning ghost story and a superhero tale that challenged the very concept of genres it represented.
(For more posts by Rahul, you can visit his blog here)