An M. Night Shyamalan Retrospective: The Ugly

by Simon Ong

Catch up on Parts One and Two of the Retrospective: The Good and The Bad

The Last Airbender (2010)

Following a string of dud thrillers that left him with genre fatigue, Shyamalan turned his attention away from the thrillers he was known for, and instead focused on making more standard summer blockbuster fare. The first of these films was The Last Airbender, an adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, that aired from 2005 to 2008 and generated a loyal fanbase.

I’m part of that fanbase: I started watching the show when it first aired and stayed with it through both the original series and The Legend of Korra, the show’s sequel series. Thus, I was eagerly anticipating The Last Airbender in the years leading up to its 2010 debut. I followed the development, production, and release of the filmclosely. In fact, I nearly auditioned for the role of Aang way back in 2008. Now I feel fortunate that never went anywhere (Seriously, when was the last time anyone checked on Noah Ringer?) What a supreme disappointment the final film turned out to be.

The Last Airbender is typically held up as M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film and, frankly, it is. It’s hard to put to words just how unspeakably bad The Last Airbender is. There’s just nothing to love here. The acting is abysmal. Shyamalan, opting to go with mostly unknown actors, winds up with the likes of the aforementioned Ringer in the lead role, who is so devoid of charm and personality that his greatest contribution to the film is to make his co-stars, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, seem marginally better by comparison. Even the likes of veteran actors like Dev Patel and Shaun Toub in the roles of Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh, respectively, produce little with the thin script they were given.

Shyamalan takes a twenty-episode season of television and condenses it into a far-too-lean 103 minutes. As such, much of the film’s plot is relegated to huge chunks of narrative exposition as the film literally whips us around the globe at breakneck speed. In the occasional moment when things slow down, the dialogue is so wooden and poorly delivered that the movie begins to feel like a shallow parody of itself. Most insultingly, the film removes the fast-paced, martial-arts-inspired action from the original series and replaces it with perhaps the slowest, worst-choreographed fight scenes I’ve ever seen. The one redeeming aspect of this film comes in the form of James Newton Howard’s score. Howard delivers as always and manages to give the film a main theme that is quite resonating. Such a shame that it was wasted on this film.

The Last Airbender was a weird career choice for Shyamalan. He’s a director that’s constantly reflecting on his filmography and the burden of his early success. He has always said that he views each new film as a part of his legacy, that he could never make “just a film.” Yet, that’s exactly what he made with The Last Airbender. It’s Shyamalan’s first adaptation of someone else’s story, which might explain his apparent indifference.

So, what was he thinking? Was Shyamalan truly desperate after his streak of critical bombs? What caused him to leave the thriller behind? Of course, this was not the first time Shyamalan considered a blockbuster adaptation. Shyamalan was attached to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before the project was handed to Chris Columbus. Shyamalan has always felt the urge to make movies for his kids, with Lady in the Water being based on bedtime stories he had invented for them, so Shyamalan’s daughter introducing him to Avatar may have been the catalyst for the adaptation. As I mentioned, The Last Airbender got absolutely savaged by critics and audiences alike upon its release, and also stirred up controversy for Shyamalan’s decision to cast white actors in most of the lead roles despite the original show’s obvious Eastern influences. Shyamalan had hit the low point of his career and nobody was denying that. The question became: where would he go from here?

After Earth (2013)

Shyamalan would go to the future, as it turned out, setting his next film, After Earth, one-thousand years beyond our present time. Humanity has fled an inhospitable Earth, and the survivors are assaulted in space by an elite race of aliens called Ursas, a species that can sense fear. A father and son (Will and Jaden Smith, respectively) become stranded back on Earth, with an Ursa in hot pursuit. It’s a standard science-fiction set-up, and it would be reasonable to expect 100 minutes of turn-your-brain-off enjoyment. Sadly, that wasn’t the result.

There are many reasons to lump After Earth together with The Last Airbender. They’re both departures from Shyamalan’s usual genre, with both films opening in the summer with the hopes of attracting blockbuster crowds (and both films failing at this). Neither is entirely from the mind of Shyamalan, with The Last Airbender being based on the television series, and After Earth originating from ideas that Will Smith had long been working on. They’re also commonly regarded as Shyamalan’s two worst films.

While I would agree that After Earth is bad, it’s not that bad. After Earth is definitely unoriginal, bland, and forgettable. Jaden Smith is poorly cast, with his presence only serving the film’s marketing of the father-son duo. Where I was gentle with the CGI shortcomings of Signs, I must now be harsh with After Earth. This film was released in the same summer as Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek Into Darkness, blockbusters with impressive CGI photography. Thus, this movie’s inability to properly animate a few monkeys is a major problem. However, despite all these flaws, After Earth is merely unremarkable rather than truly awful, which makes it better thanthe likes of The Last Airbender, The Happening, and Lady in the Water. This is one big shoulder-shrug of a film. It’s bad, but it’s also nothing to write home about.

After Earth continued the narrative of M. Night Shyamalan’s career descent. Shyamalan had strayed so far from his original artistic style and tone that there was genuine confusion over what was happening. One prevailing theory pointed out similarities in the themes of After Earth and the rhetoric of Scientology and speculated on a connection. Paired with the longstanding speculation that Will Smith may have ties with the religion, the theory led people to wonder if Shyamalan and Will Smith were using the movie as a platform to explore Scientology’s teachings. While the Church of Scientology openly denied any involvement in the film, it’s hard to deny that such conspiracy theories made this pill of a movie a lot easier to swallow.

Maybe M. Night Shyamalan was never going to make another good movie again. Well, as they say, once you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up, and Shyamalan was about to attempt a climb out of the hole he had dug for himself.