After Earth, Split And The Resurrection Of M. Night Shyamalan


After Earth was such a disaster that it wound up doing a lot of things to the principals involved. It’s actually kind of impressive to see what has happened in the near four years since the film was dropped into theaters … and no one cared.

Will Smith finally figured out that no matter how hard you push your kids that people won’t accept them as stars because you say they are. If only Tom Hanks pushed his son Colin as hard as Will pushed Jaden; the younger Hanks is an amazing actor and a personal favorite.

Give him credit for something though; if he’d been able to turn Jaden Smith into a star by sheer force of will you could call it his greatest achievement ever. Usually when an A-lister like Will Smith goes this hard into something it’s a passion project, like Scorsese’s Silence, but instead all Smith got was people in silence at how awful that film was. He kind of figured it out because he starred in a comic book film and is prepping for a Bad Boys sequel. After Collateral Beauty flopped commercially and critically Smith is going back to the sequels and franchises that defined his rise to superstardom.

Jaden Smith’s career as an actor kind of was wrapped up … much like how Willow Smith’s music career fizzled out.

The downside of being a child actor, and the scion of Hollywood royalty, is that all of your flaws get exposed quickly. Being the slightly weird child of a famous star, as evidenced by his social media accounts, combined with the sort of Hollywood mega push he received for a couple years exposed that he wasn’t ready to be a top-lining actor much less a star. He didn’t have any bonafides that screamed “I can be a talented actor” outside of having been born in the lucky sperm club; he was born on third base and we can’t act as if he hit a triple to get there.

After Earth was a big money losing project that seemed to function as a means of transferring some of the father’s star power to the son and wound up being a substantial money loser. But something curious happened out of all this nepotism; the film’s director has had the most interesting career surge since After Earth wound up losing ungodly amounts of cash.

M. Night Shyamalan finally had his “forget it” moment and wound up going back to his roots as a small budget horror director. And so far his cinematic resurrection is on schedule as M. Night, once pegged to be the next Spielberg, is starting to find a path back to the point where his name doesn’t inspire chuckles or “When’s the twist going to happen?”

The thing we forget is that before he got pegged as the director who always had a twist in his films is that Shyamalan actually made really good films for a period of time. But the downside of success is that expectations, etc, rise along with budgets and the sort of expectations those come. After Earth was the seeming perfect storm for his career; it was a straight genre film that was bad but it didn’t feel like it had Shyamalan the auteur behind it. You could’ve had any number of directors under the “Directed By” tab and no one would’ve noticed. So what did he do to follow this up?

Go small, go personal and do something interesting.

Which is what The Visit was; an interesting small film that made an ungodly amount of money against its fairly tiny budget. His latest, Split, follows the same path. It’s a fairly brilliant way to regain relevance as a director; do something so small that a modest box office return winds up making the film insanely profitable. It won’t mean someone is going to give him $100 million for another “The trees are killing us, man” type of film … but it’ll allow him to get back into the conversation.

Another small horror film can finish this comeback for him; failure in creative arts is eliminated with smaller successes and time. And the further we get away from After Earth and The Last Airbender the further Shyamalan begins to be associated with success again.

Even a solid box office performance this weekend (think Top 10), which horror films tend to have, still places Split in profitability (or close to it) on domestic revenues alone after a couple days. The plus side of having a budget so low is that the film will never be anyone’s summer tentpole; therefore the volume of people who’ll have their hands in it won’t be as much as for something like Suicide Squad or After Earth.

He may not be back as an A-list director after this weekend … but he’s closer to being an interesting director. And I think that’s more important.

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Scott Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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