Published May 30, 2013Try asking someone about the new M. Night Shyamalan movie. Chances are, all you'll receive is a look of minor surprise. Ask the same question about the new Smith family vehicle and suddenly you're making sense.
From darling genre auteur to laughing stock and then box office poison, the man who was once naively called "the next Hitchcock" has seen a significant reversal of fortunes in his clockwork career so far.
With his bag of tricks exhausted, Shyamalan has turned into a director for hire, first with The Last Airbender and now in the service of "a story from the mind of Will Smith." The sharp-eyed, tin-eared director doesn't fare much better as a cog in the machine than he did as an egomaniacal puppet master.
Instead of another credulity-stretching craptasterpiece, in the vein of Lady in the Water or the magical wrong-headedness of The Happening, we get a thoroughly predictable, narratively sloppy, family, sci-fi action adventure with a frustrating number of interesting world-building ideas so densely clustered and under-utilized that none of them are given a chance to develop.
Apparently eager to show the world just how little he has grown as a director, Shyamalan exploits the ultimate storyteller cop-out right out of the gate: the expository info-dump. After a jarring tease of things to come that feels weirdly tacked-on, Kitai (Jaden Smith, who lacks both chops and charisma) explains the background of mankind's evacuation of Earth in voiceover while we're assaulted by images that aren't fully realized. No attempt is made to justify this convoluted and out-of-context history lesson; it's entirely for our benefit. It's also a lot to absorb.
Here's what really matters: after we rendered the Earth uninhabitable for man, we ditched out on the wreckage, settling on a planet called Nova Prime, where, for reasons difficult to follow, mankind ended up battling fierce creatures genetically engineered to smell fear.
Will Smith plays Prime Commander Cypher Raige (that joke makes itself), of mankind's peacekeeping force, the Rangers. He has no fear (and consequently, a limited emotional range), so he's effectively invisible to these deadly beasts. The technique is called "ghosting"; it means he's the biggest bad-ass on the planet. So, of course, and presumably echoing real life, his son wants to be just like him, but resents him a bit for always being wrapped up with work. Hero worship is a bitch.
Despite being physically at the top of his class, Kitai fails to quality as a Ranger. As consolation, and for some much needed bonding time, Commander Cypher takes his son on a routine expedition that turns into a survival mission in hostile territory, one where Kitai is forced to face his fear and prove to daddy that he deserves to wear big boy pants.
While it would have made a decently effective minor mid-film reveal, that the planet father and son crash land on is Earth is given away early and was a primary selling point of the trailers. Fear the twist. That fact isn't really important to the greater purpose of the story anyway and the logic behind how the wildlife has evolved in mankind's absence doesn't make a lick of sense. How does every life form on a planet develop to become optimum predators of a nonexistent species?
Fresh Prince Jr.'s race against the clock might have made a better videogame than a movie. It's got all the hallmarks of one: checkpoints, environmental hazards to overcome, special inventory items, a fancy impractical weapon, various foes, heck, there's even a boss battle — and all of it is designed to look cool instead of make logical or thematic sense.
Shyamalan still brings a few skills to the table, mostly an aptitude for effective atypical camera angles, but shepherding a massive special effects team is obviously a challenge for him — there's an off-putting lack of polish in the digital images for a project so reliant upon visual spectacle.
Even with his name hidden in the credits, Shyamalan has managed to turn in another unique misfire, one made all the more exasperating by how often it almost doesn't suck. (Sony)