“After Earth”: Set 1,000 years in the future, a father (Will Smith) and son (Jaden Smith) with a strained relationship take a trip to the now abandoned Earth only to become stranded after their spaceship crash lands. In addition to being Smith’s latest star vehicle, the film is also co-written and directed by critical punching bag M. Night Shyamalan. Though none of the film’s promotional materials suggest that it will be anything other than slightly more emotionally grounded “Oblivion,” there are some aspects of the film that provoke undeniable curiosity.
One such aspect is that Will Smith has a “Story By” credit. It been no secret that since ascending to Hollywood’s A-list regardless of the creatives involved a movie withWill Smith in it is a Will Smith movie, a situation recently evidenced when he rewrote large sections of Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s script for “I, Robot” during shooting and had production stopped on “Men in Black III” to rework its troubled second act. Though Smith’s contributions were publically recognized by his collaborators, Smith hasn’t had a writing credit since he penned a third season episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Does this change suggest that Smith is looking for more recognition or that the aging leading man is planning to make a gradual move behind the scenes? Either way, “After Earth’s” dour looking tone and focus on his son will be a real test of the Smith brand.
The film also seems to cement the fact that, barring a serious reversal, M. Night Shyamalan’s career as a talented but flawed auteur is over. Shyamalan is now a work-for-hire director not dissimilar from a Shawn Levy or a Stephen Sommers which is depressing but not surprising. Shyamalan took the world by storm with his elegant Spielberg-meets-J-horror smash “The Sixth Sense” but lost his critical cache with his follow-up “Unbreakable,” a quiet superhero movie that ended being his best film. Shyamalan rallied with his crisis of faith/alien invasion drama “Signs” but permanently damaged his reputation audiences with his lyrical but repetitively structured 9/11 response “The Village” and destroyed his relationship with his longtime patrons at Disney with his massively self-indulgent fantasy “Lady in the Water.” The once beloved director reached artistic nadir with the ineptly conceived comeback picture “The Happening” before helming the universal despised cartoon adaptation “The Last Airbender,” a tent pole movie with a built-in audience that should have been a slam dunk but put Shyamalan in the unenviable position of rationalizing the controversial studio practice of whitewashing casting to legions of disappointed fans. Once able to bring in big money based on a tenuous concept only connection, Shyamalan has been reduced to directing films that have trailers that downplay his involvement as much as possible to avoid toxic association.
The combination of Shyamalan’s formidable but now soulless storytelling chops and Smiths ceaseless dedication to making movies for the biggest possible audience may have led to the creation of a watchable popcorn movie but it’d have to startlingly good to overcome its patina of staggering egotism and unmitigated sadness. Also starring Isabella Fuhrman, Sophie Okonedo and Zoë Kravitz.
Fun fact: In addition to work by Smith, Shyamalan and “Book of Eli” writer Gary Whitta, the film’s script also features uncredited contributions from Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic”) and Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”).
“Now You See Me”: Jesse Eisenberg leads a crack team of magicians on mission to pull off a massive heist while under scrutiny from a FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo). A film with that silly a premise would likely be a lot of fun if not for the fact that it is directed by Louis Leterrier, a French action stylist from Luc Besson’s stable. Leterrier seems to be a perpetually unfortunate filmmaker, having to share credit on his debut film “The Transporter” due to a unfixable contract issue. His first American studio picture had the misfortune of being “The Incredible Hulk,” which the nascent Marvel Studios essentially took away from Leterrier after finding his work too dark and his second big budget effort, “Clash of the Titans” was hampered by a legendarily crappy post-production 3D conversion. While his constant battles with the modern filmmaking system must be given consideration, it doesn’t excuse the fact Leterrier’s films are pretty boring whenever the fighting stops and a movie built around stage magic that liberally utilizes CGI for its illusions misses the point in such a fundamental way that it beggars belief. This would be G.O.B. Bluth’s favorite movie. Also starring Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman.
Fun fact: The film is produced by “Star Trek” and “Transformers” screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org