Bright Lights Film Journal

Shyamalan’s a Ding-Dong: After Earth (Will Smith is a great dad, please)

Why is M. Knight Shyamalan still allowed to make  movies? It’s a popular question for those of us who sat through After Earth (2013), a Will Smith and Son Joint, with positive dad sermonizing “Fear is a choice!” We learn from the ever-more-energetic Smith how to be a first-class daddy, and ever since he presumed himself the sole star behind the success of summer blockbuster Independence Day (1996) he’s presumed our perennial summer love unconditionally, just as Shyamalan seems to presume his idiot savant gift as a glacial mood setter will ensure our amnesia about his growing string of critically maligned flops. He may excel at slowing down scenes until they dissolve in front of us like a dream, but his screenplays lack logic, such as the aliens in his last big success, Signs (2002) who are allergic to water, conveniently, and though they have ships and can draw crop circles, can’t seem to slide down a farmhouse chimney, or establish a legitimate reason why they would want to.

But everyone in the world saw it, and even if they howled at the end’s ridiculous contrivances they couldn’t avoid the hypnotic, uneasy spell of the first half, and everyone had seen The Sixth Sense (1999) too, and for awhile it had really gripped America. I remember seeing it one rainy afternoon at an UES Manhattan theater and emerging from its rainy Philadelphia imagery into the rainy, spooky upper east side made it seem like we were all dead and just haunting the cinema watching ghosts of ghosts in the rain. “I see dead people” became a catch phrase and now the words ‘sixth sense’ means only one thing… that kind of household naming is the one thing Hollywood respects, no matter how many duds you crank out afterwards.

Perhaps that’s why Shyamalan is still given the keys to all these expensive cars even after he crashes them time and again. He made a fortune with Sixth Sense and Signs, outweighing the relatively minor losses on his turkey list. He could probably crank out 40 more duds and still be flush. Critics may hate them but if you take the Shyamalan canon as a whole, the profits have outweighed the losses, at a 12 year ultimate profit of 50 million (I did the math), and this presumes Another Earth won’t make another nickel after its 27 million opening weekend, which, based on abysmal word of mouth, is a possibility.

Will Smith and the son he presumes the world adores as much as he does are in a similar boat. His character’s name, Cypher, in Another Earth, tells you all you need to know. For one, Smith is a big enough star that most of the bad choices surrounding his character are his fault. That he has to tell us he is a ‘Cypher’ shows just how not a cypher he is. His luck with CGI action films has made him confused into thinking we go to see Men in Black films for him and not the monsters. I’m not knocking his gifts — I could never do anything he does, from his deadpan elan with CGI monsters to his brave face voicing of unbearably trite dialogue. But narcissism is a tricky thing.

That all said, it’s fascinating that yet another post-apocalyptic saga features not romance (was The Matrix the last one?) but father-son bonding. An old article of mine from Bright Lights #71, “Dads of Great Adventure” runs through the thread, starting back in The Day After Tomorrow and up through 2012, The Road, Knowing, and War of the Worlds. After Earth would fit right in, of course. Don’t get me wrong, I understand Will Smith’s game, launching his children’s careers and emblazoning himself as something young black dads might study and benefit from, and though Shyamalan didn’t write the script for this one it bears a similarity to his Happening, as far as an earth destroyed by man’s carelessness, the planet shrugging humanity off its shoulders in an ‘enough is enough’ gesture.

If I have a point it’s that as far as Hollywood is concerned money talks, and any publicity, anything that makes your name a household word, ensures steady work. And if the Hollywood can’t shrug off Shyamalan, or the children of Will Smith, then how in hell will Earth ever find the will to shrug us off? We’re the Shyamalans and Smiths of planetary residents, ever-mistaking our compulsive hungry ghost need for attention as something noble and heroic. But let’s face it, all 8 billion of us want the same thing: the other 7.99 billion of us gone, as long as they’re watching us from on high as we mourn them, like a sea of ghost eye ticket-buying Huckleberry Finns, packing our every move and gesture with solemnity, adoration, and goodness. In other words, we don’t want to see dead people, but we damn sure want them to see us, and to know that we may not be very attentive, mature or interested lovers any more, but we’re desperate to be recognized as great dads.

Woe to the children, for they will believe anything.