I went off to see After Earth with trepidation (after all, The Last Airbender was 103 minutes of my life I'll never get back). To minimise bias, I avoided my usual routine of checking rotten tomatoes, or asking around friends for opinions. I'd only seen one trailer, so I think I got a fairly 'cold' viewing. I'm going to come back to it in a minute, because first I want to talk about something I've noticed happening with M Night Shyamalan films. I'll call it the 'Kevin Costner' effect - the trend of being lauded at one point in your career, and then steadily with some preciptating event, copping flak for anything else you make. Now, with Costner, perhaps fair enough. Dances with Wolves was a high enough pinacle to carry even Robin Hood, but Waterworld really sunk it. But with Shyamalan, I'm a bit perplexed. Yes, The Last Airbender was awful. But the whinging I hear about him precedes Airbender, and it seems to have little to do with storytelling.
What I hear from most people (and by most people, I mean my circle of friends, aquaintances and random stuff I read on the interwebz) is they don't forgive him for Lady in the Water. At first, I thought this was because they'd been blindsided; the film is perhaps not what most people expected (a fairytale for adults). But no, it's actually because of the bit-part that Shyamalan played himself - a writer who was going to change the world. Aparantly, this was so conceited (despite the fact said writer would be killed for it) that Shyamalan can not be forgiven, all his storytelling tainted. And that's just a bit sad.
Lady in the Water is one of my favourite films. I liked The Sixth Sense (though I saw it long after its release). Unbreakable gave me chills; Signs and The Village had me gripped. And Devil ... wow. These films have humour; they have horror. They have cleverness and interlink-ed-ness. Good stories, well told. The Happening wasn't brilliant, but I've always thought it was a fundamental problem of premise - very difficult to make plants an effective antagonist - and it still had genuinely creepy moments. So, all in all, I count only one truly awful film. And I shall not speak its name again.
So, to After Earth. I was strangely impressed. At its surface, a simple story. And there's some pretty bad dialogue, especially for the (limited) secondary characters. But still, I was riveted. By Will Smith, for once NOT playing Will Smith. No smart mouth, but with palpable and consistent tension of the military man he is. By the way the story incorporated and yet rose above the world-building. By the judicious smattering of flashback. By the intense and guarded emotion. By the carefully placed moments: of heart-rending sacrifice (not by the main characters) and horror that punched the story along. I've been far less impressed by many recent sci-fi offerings, including Oblivion. So, win.
But then, after the film, I discover it's been almost universally panned. Rotten tomatoes gives it 11%. Then I see the net is abuzz with how it's a film about scientology, or something like that, and blah blah blah. Now, I think Tom Cruise is kooky as anything, but that isn't what made Oblivion a ho-hum film for me. It was just poor storytelling--boring characters, overdone context, underdone conflict. And yet, 55% on rotten tomatoes.
So, I don't particularly care what sins M Night has committed outside the stories. I think he's proved himself a capable storyteller (and at least twice--with Devil and After Earth--since the stumble of Air-ahem-bender). Which is far more than can perhaps be said for Costner, post-Waterworld. 11% doesn't seem a fair capture. So, I trust in the next film, until proven wrong. Otherwise, I'm just cheated out of good stories.
Or at least, ones that work for me. And I'd have After Earth over Oblivion any day.
(I should acknowlege that the ManBeast maintains that The Postman wasn't a bad film, so perhaps Costner might have a recovery in him yet. Maybe. ;) )