There’s an early episode of The Simpsons where Krusty the Clown is in serious financial difficulties brought on by his extravagant spending habits and hopeless addiction to ill-advised gambling. Shortly after seeing him light his cigar with a priceless copy of Action Comics #1, we see the hapless Krusty watching the Harlem Globetrotters once more humiliating their regular opponents. “Let me get this straight,” says his accountant, “you bet against the Harlem Globetrotters?” Krusty responds: “I thought The Generals were due!”
With M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth (2013) looking like a rather expensive FX-driven blockbuster with the Hollywood royalty of Will Smith and his son Jaden in the starring roles, one can only assume that the financiers are following a similar logic. Night is, as Krusty would say, due.
M. Night Shyamalan’s career is fascinating and has, perhaps, no easy comparisons. No auteur’s career has started so brightly and fell so far in such a short time. In 1999 he came from nowhere with The Sixth Sense; a film that captivated (most) audiences and has an influence that can still be seen today. Some will claim that they saw that twist coming but it doesn’t alter the fact that repeated viewing reveals just how clever Night’s (mis)direction actually was. Although he couldn’t possibly have been expected to follow up with anything quite as successful, both Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) were ambitious and satisfying pieces of cinema; critics even felt the need to point out that we mustn’t underestimate them in the shadow of his previous tour de force. We still got quite excited at the prospect of The Village (2004) even if many were genuinely disappointed (perhaps unfairly) when it saw the light of day. But goodwill had started to evaporate by the strange and self-indulgent Lady in the Water (2006). With the recent debacles of The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010), Night finds himself a regular winner at the Razzies; if he’s not careful he’ll be getting a lifetime achievement award there soon.
This is a bizarre and fairly unprecedented career path. Each film just a little bit more disappointing in a decade-long spiral from masterpiece to turkey; it’s been like watching a car crash in ultra-slow motion. Why did it go so badly wrong? Well there’s an article in itself, but what’s more interesting is whether Night can break the cycle. If he can attract the Smiths to his latest attempt then somebody, somewhere certainly thinks so. Good luck to them on that; Night looks very much like a man who has lost his touch and we’ve seen not the slightest hint of him getting it back in recent years. The trailer looks good but then most trailers do. Possibly not a factor but one also can’t help but notice that it’ll be up against Oblivion (2013) with Tom Cruise. Rightly or wrongly, one of these similarly themed star vehicles will be considered the victor; and who is going to bet against the Cruiser?
For all that, Night was once a great hope and we genuinely wish he can pull it off. He’s original, daring and uncompromising; all refreshing features in these days of by-the-numbers multiplex filling. You’ve got to applaud him for trying to break the rules even if it’s regularly been with such disastrous results in recent years. Perhaps he is due.
Just to finish slightly off the point, we also reckon we know what the Shyamalan twist will be in After Earth. Here at Starburst we’ve analysed that trailer and gone through our enormous library of SF from the last century or so and we can tell you that… well, obviously we’re not telling you lot. But if we suffered from the same gambling habits as Krusty, we might very well put a small bet on Night getting a letter or two from the estate of the late Harry Harrison. You heard it here first.
On the other hand, we might turn out to be about as good at gambling as Krusty; who is, no doubt, putting a hefty wager on After Earth sweeping the Oscars.