Destroy All Monsters: Leave M. Night Alone

Matt Brown, Columnist

Something entertaining happened on Thursday as the reviews of After Earth began to hit. Right here on our site, Jason Gorber's review (very negative, read it here) was lambasted all day long by the commenting community - deemed "unprofessional," "fannish," (and, to be fair, also the "best. review. ever."). Meanwhile, over on HitFix, Drew McWeeny's review (generally favourable, while still containing an impassioned plea for the reassertion of a "middle" in critical thought) was torn apart in the comments for the opposite reason, with Mr. McWeeny accused of being in the pockets of the studios for daring to give an okay pass to an M. Night Shyamalan film.

Now, of course, "the internet" is not a homogenous blob or hive mind, singularly intent on doing its content creators ill, so this isn't a case of one hand not knowing what the other is talking about. But if the response to Mr. McWeeny's review was what I'd call internet-typical - We Hate Shyamalan, And You Should Too - the response to Jason's review is merely proof that everybody's got their asshole, and an opinion to go with it. M. Night Shyamalan has fans, and they come out on the internet every time one of his movies shows up, even if the director's output has achieved a rare zenith of empirical badness in the more general popular consciousness.

To an extent, though, any critics being ragged on by Shyamalan's fan base this week probably deserve it. I have been hard-pressed, since Thursday, to find reviews of After Earth that are not first and foremost reviews of the film's director. It seems weirdly important for everyone writing about the film to first log a screed about how much the critic in question has disliked (at least) the last four of Shyamalan's films, and maybe all of them.

Well, granted. And providing the context of a filmmaker's body of work around the response to a single film is certainly valid from a critical standpoint. But the trouble with admitting bias - and to call the vast critical hate-on for Shyamalan "bias" is like calling the malevolent tornadoes in Twister "a bit of weather" - is that it comes dangerously close to constructing the appearance of an impossibility of the critic engaging with the work. While no one should be labouring under the delusion that film criticism is an exercise in objective impartiality, it's also hard to respect a review that seems to admit up front that there was no way the film could possibly have received a favourable grade.

Shyamalan, of course, opens himself up for this onslaught of critical fervour, with wide-open arms that seem to be screaming "Come at me, bro!" More accurately, the sweetheart deal that Shyamalan received after The Sixth Sense allowed his evidently impressive ego to run riot without check - and if there's one thing the cultists in the Cult of Celebrity cannot effing stand, it is ego. As many of the reviews of After Earth have reminded us (because the reviews of The Happening and The Last Airbender apparently did not firmly enough reinforce this fact in all of our minds), this is the director who cast himself as a writer with the ability to change the world in The Lady in the Water. As each successive M. Night Shyamalan film emerged into the cosmos with his name stamped stubbornly above the title - "An M. Night Shyamalan Film, M. Night Shyamalan's M. Night Shyamalan Movie" - the writer/producer/director might just as well have been pinning "kick me" signs all over his back and front.

But in addressing Shyamalan on After Earth, the critics (and, even, his fans) are a step behind. After Earth marks the second movement in what is essentially a headlong retreat from the forefront by the director; he is no longer making movies of his own self-satisfied authorship. The Last Airbender saw the director of several critical and box office misfires in a row step behind the armour of an internationally recognizeable brand with a built-in fan base; After Earth sees Shyamalan in as close to hired-gun status as he's ever had on a film. Even the studio has cottoned to the toxic nature of the Shyamalan brand, concealing the director's involvement with the film in every poster and trailer. (Can a film be labeled an Alan Smithee project without the director's consent?)

M. Night Shyamalan is not, then, the droid you're looking for when laying the blame for whatever isn't working on After Earth. Anyone attacking Shyamalan for After Earth without addressing Will Smith first is like the gang of us who chose to pile on George Lucas when Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was released. That was another film where there was a key creative participant that nobody likes any more, so we all went out to beat him with tire-irons instead of actually interrogating the work. But it was Spielberg, not Lucas, who gave Indy a son; it was Spielberg, not Lucas, who cast Shia LeBeouf; Spielberg, not Lucas, who took a perfectly serviceable MacGuffin and retrofitted it into interdimensional beings from the space between spaces or whateverthefuck. Who's the bad daddy now?

In the case of After Earth, Will Smith drove the project from soup to nuts, and hired Shyamalan, which isn't actually a bad choice. Shyamalan might be a lost cause when it comes to writing his own pictures (his one-trick pony routine worked fine for two whole tricks, but that's it), but he retains a quantifiable directorial skill set that has nothing to do with his abilities as a writer. Unbreakable is the closest thing to a masterpiece as came out of Hollywood in the year 2000, and the technical craftsmanship of The Village is second to none, regardless of what you think of the third act reveal. If nearly every one of his other films has ranged from problematic to outright disastrous, so be it. The director got paid either way.

There's a whiff of playground bullying about all of this... or perhaps more appropriately to Shyamalan's mien, good, old-fashioned The Lottery-ish scapegoatism. In addition to relieving us of the burden of independent critical thinking, a consensually-agreed-upon single target for a community-wide rage fit is as cathartic as slipping into a warm bath. But I'll tell you what else the critical response to After Earth is: it's old. It's tired. It's a story that's been told about five or six times already. We get it: people don't like M. Night Shyamalan. What else do you have to say?


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column about Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • Wooley

    Wow.
    That was actually a sensible, well-written argument, and I am inclined to agree.

  • Dave Baxter

    "And providing the context of a filmmaker's body of work around the
    response to a single film is certainly valid from a critical standpoint.
    But the trouble with admitting bias - and to call the vast critical
    hate-on for Shyamalan 'bias' is like calling the malevolent tornadoes in
    Twister 'a bit of weather' - is that it comes dangerously close to constructing the appearance of an impossibility of the critic engaging with the work."

    Except that by stating you have very low expectations going in (i.e. the "bias") it makes more sense that this = a greater chance that the movie will impress. The fact that a film doesn't, when you already are expecting a quality compared to past poorly received films, means that the movie itself must not be appreciably better.

    This means that any reader can translate the critic's review as being = to past Shyamalan films, unless the critic specifically states that he thinks the current film is even worse. It isn't a bias of any significance or distortion to compare the feelings of a director's current effort to that of his past efforts. No matter what the critic's feelings about these past efforts, by stating that it is equal to, better than, or worse than, everyone can take their own feelings on the director's past efforts and figure where they likely stand with the latest effort - the same, better than, or worse than.

    And summing any movie up into "the same, better than, or worse then" past efforts is a very necessary context for any review in our art-laden culture. Leaving that out is pretending you can review a film in a cultural vacuum, which is disingenuous and I'd call bullshit on any reviewer who claims they can do this. Since no critic arguably CAN do this, it's an insincere review that leaves this context out and pretends to focus on the current movie only. And I'll take honesty over high-minded pretense in my reviews, any day.

  • Well, that was well said.

  • tman418

    My favorite Shayamalan film is the one that takes place in Philadelphia, and it centers on a man who lost his faith/confidence. And he struggles against supernatural forces, but it turns out there was a twist behind the supernatural struggle.

    Damn it, forgot that the name of that movie.

  • tman418

    I saw this movie last night. I honestly have no idea what any of the critics were talking about. I liked it.

    I know that "After Earth" wasn't perfect, but neither were "The Dark Knight Rises" or "The Avengers" or "Looper." But just because it wasn't perfect, it doesn't mean that it's the worst film ever made. It doesn't even come close to what "Battlefield Earth" was.

    I think the critics went really overboard on this film for some unknown reason. It didn't "totally suck."

  • ChevalierEagle

    Also, the whole "if you don't like something don't talk about" mantra i see in some comments here is a bit funny and a bit scary. Funny because you want a site that reviews cinema to keep "bad" opinions about a director off the site cuz that's not "fair". It's scary because you are also pretty much pushing for some kind of censorship with the whole "don't talk about it" comments.

  • ChevalierEagle

    Jason's review got attacked by Shyamalan fanboys, it happens. A terrible director with a rabid fanbase will jump at anyone daring to speak ill of their beloved crap director and it's god awful movies.

  • PushnDownHippys

    Unbreakable is the closest thing to a masterpiece as came out of
    Hollywood in the year 2000? How about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,
    Requiem for a Dream or even Shadow of the Vampire? Is Unbreakable
    actually more of a "masterpiece" than these 3, or is there some sort of
    specificity to the word Hollywood that only includes Unbreakable?

  • Bryant Low

    'Crouching Tiger' was not a Hollywood production. It was a US-China-Taiwan-Hong Kong co-production shot entirely in China. 'Shadow' was produced by Nicholas Cage's Saturn Films so it qualifies.

  • Matthew Price

    I'd say that not one of the other three would be considered "Hollywood" films - as in produced and distributed by a major.

  • hutch

    which guy is actually directing in that pic above?

  • I'm debating watching this film myself. Part me and my special brand of M. Night (see Scrubs for correct pronunciation) hate gives me pause and checking my local listings for the cheapest cineplex with the film showing, but at the same time I want to like his things. Mainly because of that directorial talents that you mention. I agree he can be a great visual director, but his writing has been abominable for ages.

    The thing which gives me the most pause though is the obvious fingers of Will Smith in this project. He's what I call one of those 'hard workers' when it comes to Hollywood. He knows the game better than most and plays it hard. At the same time I almost (PRE WATCHING) see this film as a vanity project/right of passage him giving to his son.

    However, I do agree with the idea.. haters gonna hate. As me and my TUMP cohosts dubbed the new title of the internet on our latest show "You're wrong and porn"... M. Night reviews are constantly dubbed "You're wrong"

  • Since my review was namechecked, a brief response:

    "It comes dangerously close to constructing the appearance of an impossibility of the critic engaging with the work."

    I don't think it comes any closer than not knowing who the director is ahead of time, but you're relying on previous expectation of genre/narrative expectation. This is I believe a Straw Man, and my point, as clumsy as it may have been, was that I hadn't seen all the films that many people had slammed MNS for. I was going in fresh, as it were, my views unsullied by what I thought of his latest projects. I'd be hardpressed to find a single thing connecting the two films of his I've seen with a single shot, character quirk, plot point, etc. If you changed the name on the credits, I'd never be able to tell you it was a MNS film. Thus, in my own, odd way, I was genuinely hoping for something refreshingly great from the man.

    What I thought was worth noting, however, that the studio certainly didn't feel that this is the same 'ol MNS either, as evidenced from the fact that for the first time since his SIXTH splash his name is nowhere to be found emblazoned on marketing materials, and if credits are given he's buried along with the other crew.

    If the film was good, I would probably have started the same way, and then pointed out the fact that by retreating into just being a filmmaker, instead of a brand, MNS was freed to show off his writing and directing chops. No, instead, we have a terrible film here, and after that determination is made, we need to look around to lay blame.

    I do, and did, put a large part of this "blame" on Mr. Smith, for something that amounts to a vanity project full stop. The story is atrocious, the script following the saccharine story, and the direction as competent as any Smithee projection, as you noted.

    Yet if MNS' aura as a director has gone from "The Next Spielberg" to being a person we shouldn't even talk about in a review ("Leave him alone!"), then that itself is worth noting. Which, I guess, I kind of did. If he's not even worthy of being called out for his participation in such a cinematic debacle, then that itself is worth commenting upon in a review, I'd suggest.

    As for directors I've hated before that still go in hoping to be swayed otherwise? Well, I despise most Michael Bay films, yet could find greatness in PAIN & GAIN. If AFTER EARTH was even a little bit good, I'd be stating so. It's when it comes to writing a review that somebody has to say something about the stinker, and I thought contextualizing the stink in writing would be apt, even if it's not what was running through my mind every frame of the film.

    "We get it: people don't like M. Night Shyamalan. What else do you have to say?"
    That, of course, is a loaded question, as you've just said plenty about what can be said. If his next film where he's buried in the credits is excellent, is he to be applauded for a "comeback"? If it's another stinker, are we to forget about his past celebrated success? Rightly or wrongly, we lump films under the director's oeuvre, particularly directors that for the last several decades have explicitly demanded credit atop the film's title. MNS has lost that power, or has relinquished it at least for now, and that's indeed something worth noting.

    Does that change how someone responds to the film while in the theatre, however? No, of course not. It changes how someone writes about the film. It's a data point to be brought up in terms of contextualization, even if not always persuasive rhetorically.

    Nowhere in your post are you defending the film, of course, so I'm assuming (based on recognition of Smith's role) that the removal of the first two paragraphs of my piece might have sufficed, leaving MNS alone through conspicuous absence. Perhaps.

    Still, as you've noted, laying blame or addressing the film itself wasn't the nature of the vitriol laid against my (and other) reviews. As I've stated several times now, nothing would have made me happier than to have this much interaction and virtual ink spilled over a project that's actually worthwhile. This film is a forgettable piece of shit, and I had (incorrectly assumed) that my article would pass with relatively little drama, much the way the film is constructed.

    Nowhere in your article, it should be noted, do you argue that this is a good movie. Perhaps we agree on that much, perhaps not. It is worth noting that many of the negative comments on the other thread were coming from people who had not yet seen the film, and yet were accusing me of bias.

    At any rate, another fine article, sir. Now, where did I hide that thesaurus?

  • VyceVictus

    I decided to see the film after your review out of morbid curiosity and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I hadn't read McWeeny's review until the link today, and for the most part he lays out all the things I got from it but had trouble putting into words. For my part, I'd add that early on I accepted the film as a pure fantasy, which I think made the on the nose junior high level symbolism easier to swallow. As well, being in the military I could definitely relate to the Overbearing Absentee Soldier Father relationship.

    I myself have only seen 2 Shayamalan movies (Unbreakable, SIgns) and I was able to feel out a few signature touches (a couple slow back and forth pans, a few grotesque jump scares, the overall....etheral saccharine tone mired in danger). But even though you detested Unbreakable, since you said you didnt see anything like that here I guess that wouldnt matter in this case as to why you hated After Earf.
    Just taking the opportunity to reply to your original view, I think you indicated you'd be curious to see how other readers felt after seeing it. I decided to reply here instead of your article to detach from the commentary bile that unfortunately accumulated.

  • Heh, great, glad you enjoyed. Drew is a hell of a writer, and while we don't always agree, like you I learn a great deal from him on any given article that he writes. He has become, through tenacity and a keen critical eye, one of the chief voices in my generation of critics.

    As for directorial quirks, there are things there to find if you'd like to parse his style, but it's not like if I told you it was directed by Len Wiseman (as suggested out in the other thread) that you'd be surprised.

    Still, I don't begrudge your enjoyment of the film. I'd just suggest the overt symbolism is Kindergarten level, not Junior High. :)

    As I've also pointed out on twitter, AFTER EARTH wasn't even the worst film I saw that day, it just happened to be the one I was assigned to write up. I do think the Wall Street Journal went a bit far in calling it the worst movie ever made. I mean, clearly he'd not seen THE HOST, right?

  • I "upped" this comment and am now favouriting it in text form.

  • I stuck with M Night Shyamalan when most of the mainstream started treating him like a punchline. Including After Earth, there has only been one film he has made that I wasn't too crazy about (and that would be The Last Airbender).

    I would argue that the huge surprise success of The Sixth Sense, which was only Shyamalan's third film, was simultaneously the best and worst thing to happen to his career. It sure must feel good to release a film so early in your career that spends 5 weeks at the top of the box office and receives six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director). However, as you say here, it did give Shyamalan a bit of an ego and I would also argue that it also affected the expectations of all his subsequent films.

    Shyamalan received a reputation as "the director who uses twist endings," because both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable had them. As such people started to, I would say unfairly, expect a twist in all of Shyamalan's films. Of the films Shyamalan released since Unbreakable, I would argue that only The Village has a true twist (two if you count the true meaning of the title of Signs).

    There was a time when I considered M Night Shyamalan to be one of my favourite directors. While that title has diminished somewhat, I am still willing to see anything that he makes with absolutely no bias. In complete honesty, I liked After Earth as a whole, but there were still multiple flaws with the film.

    I agree that people should just leave Shyamalan alone and if they don't like his films, they don't have to go see them.

  • Mina Bontempo

    One instance, Les Cahiers du Cinéma are fans of Shyamalan, and even of his last films, which are generally considered as utter failures elsewhere and mostly, so it seems, in America. The fact is, Les Cahiers du Cinéma are not my cup of tea, and I pretty much loath their critics, but I'm somewhat happy to know that some people continue to take him seriously.

  • Sir_Infanteater

    Great piece, and by the way, it's the first I've ever read on this site. I appreciate the impartiality and the attempt to get people to look at the work and not the director. Keep it up.

  • Art Vandelay

    I really hope M. Night Shyamalan gets out of this rut, seriously. Everything from "The Village" onwards was just badly executed, heck, the ideas were good, but man oh man, were they disappointing.
    I haven't seen After Earth, but from what I can see, this was Will Smith's ship being producer and coming up with the original story, and it's his fault that it sunk the way it did. Apparently, the original story had no science-fiction elements at all. That, I would've preferred.

    M. Night should do low-budget films, more intimate stories and hope that he gets some critical acclaim back.

  • Kevin

    I think people were mad at Lucas for Crystal Skull because he supposedly didn't like Frank Darabont's script, which didn't have Indy's son, explained the extraterrestrials more, etc.

  • Hmm, it was my impression that Spielberg kiboshed the Darabont draft, but I might be misremembering on that point. Spielberg definitely added the son though (Lucas' original treatment had a daughter) and pushed his boy into the role.

    The Darabont draft, incidentally, is well worth a read for anyone interested. It's not perfect, but it's far superior to the film they made. Awesome AFRICAN QUEEN vibe between Indy and Marion.

  • Transdimensional beings, yo.

    And, yeah, I liked KOTCS, go figure... Whip+Hat=Indy=Happy Jason. But that, of course, is for another thread.

  • Snoop Lion

    Nooo Gruber, Nooooo!

  • MITNG

    Great write up! Will and his son brilliantly came from the wreckage unscathed, M. Knight is the modern day equivalent of Lee Harvey Oswald in this debacle.

  • Electric Head

    I believe the negative responses to Jason Gorber's review were mostly due to his writing style and pompous attitude. It's like he looks up his words in a thesaurus before typing them in.

    I'm a Shyamalan-hater myself, but I do acknowledge that he has directing chops. It's when he tries to do *everything* so that he can have all the glory, that I think he falls flat.

    I started to think that perhaps Will Smith is also succumbing to some of these tendencies after hearing that he turned down the role in Django Unchained because he felt that the character needed to be more central to the plot i.e. be the typical Hero character.

    I found this article spot-on and well written. Twitch needs more of these and less of Gruber's writing style; at least, that's my personal view as an avid reader of Twitch articles.

  • tman418

    "after hearing that he turned down the role in Django Unchained because he felt that the character needed to be more central to the plot i.e. be the typical Hero character."

    He also turned down the role of Neo in "The Matrix" in favor of "Wild Wild West."

  • Matthew Price

    If the response to Jason's review were based on his writing style he'd get similar responses to all his work here. QED, it's the movie.

  • Matthew Price

    Also, kudos on calling him "Gruber" :) Imma start calling him that all the time from now on.

  • DAVE

    AMAZING!

  • Cedric Chou Ya-Li

    Great piece.

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