Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Yesterday's News Today: Will Smith teams with M. Night Shyamalan. How they can help each other...

The news is brief and relatively vague. But Will Smith and Jaden Smith are apparently headlining an original science-fiction adventure film for none-other than M. Night Shyamalan. The Sony picture is untitled and the plot details are sparse ("Set 1,000 years into the future, a young boy navigates an abandoned and sometimes scary Earth to save himself and his estranged father after their ship crashes."), but the idea of the biggest star on Earth teaming with one of the more iconic filmmakers in the modern age remains an interesting one. Point being, it may well be a mutually-beneficial relationship for both of them.

It's no secret that M. Night Shyamalan has undergone a rather shocking artistic fall from grace over the last few years. The man who was once (lazily) called 'the next Spielberg' hasn't directed a completely satisfying film since Signs back in 2002. Sure, I can defend the ideas behind The Village and its gorgeous James Newton Howard score. I can praise it as a political parable about how fear leads to irrational behavior, as well as again explain that it wasn't supposed to be a horror film. And I can defend The Lady in the Water by acknowledging Paul Giamatti's tremendously affecting lead performance, as well as the intriguing idea of a man whose philosophies brought him fame and credibility only after (only because?) he was murdered. And I can admit that The Happening is a bad film while admiring its sheer absurdity and wacked-out 1950s B-movie vibe. And I can... no, other than a decent action climax, I cannot find much to recommend from The Last Airbender. In just under a decade, M. Night Shyamalan has gone from a filmmaker from whom everyone expected genius to someone from whom everyone expects drivel.

Will Smith has a different, arguably much smaller, problem. He is arguably the biggest movie star in the world, a guy who has scored massive worldwide hits in a variety of genres. But Following an impressive six-year run, from Men in Black 2 to Hancock, Smith finally had what could technically be called a 'miss'. I've argued before that Seven Pounds is still a relative hit, that $168 million worldwide for dark, somber, and relentlessly bleak drama about organ donation and suicide is a testament to Will Smith's star-power, not a strike against it. But the press ganged up, and Smith seemingly panicked, heading to the much-troubled Men in Black 3 (a film in such disarray that it may or may not actually get completed). For what it's worth, Men in Black 2 and Bad Boys 2 were partially 'comeback' films too, coming off a few box office whiffs (Wild Wild West, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Ali). While Will Smith remains the unchallenged box office champ at the moment, there was a fear that the 'failure' of Seven Pounds would have him fleeing back to the safety of his prior franchises (Independence Day, Men in Black, Bad Boys, etc). That Smith has apparently signed on for this original genre entry is a hopeful sign that the man who powered The Pursuit of Happyness to $307 million has not given up on his own star power.

So where does this leave these two iconic filmmakers? In a mutually beneficial place, I'd argue. Will Smith gets the chance to show yet again that he can power an original film to blockbuster levels, while giving his son Jaden another shot of box office mojo. He can prove yet again that he can pilot relatively high-quality genre films to blockbuster grosses without falling back on desperate cash-ins. After all, Will Smith isn't the biggest star in the world because Bad Boys II made $133 million domestic. Will Smith is the biggest star in the world because I Am Legend grossed $256 million domestic on his star-power alone. Let's see any of his would-be competitors (Johnny Depp, Adam Sandler) try a dark and depressing horror thriller where the main character is alone for the first two-thirds of the movie, there's almost no action for the first 80% of the picture, the dog slowly dies onscreen, and the hero kills himself in the end. I'd argue of course that Smith doesn't need to convince anyone of his star power, but his willingness to work without a net (and with a 'troubled' auteur) shows a grain of fearlessness that I was worried had been washed away.

As for M. Night Shyamalan, he theoretically gets what he needs most: someone arguably more powerful than him to tell him 'No'. Come what may, Shyamalan is still the guy who wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. The man still has artistic instincts that merit attention, even if he desperately needs someone to keep him honest; someone to tell him to question his artistic choices to make sure they are the right ones. That's what he lost when he left Disney in a huff after they rejected the first draft of Lady in the Water. Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount have basically allowed him free reign, and the continuing box office success of most of his films (only Lady in the Water is a genuine money-loser) have allowed him to rebuff those who point out the obvious discrepancy in quality between Unbreakable and The Happening. Working with an incredibly hands-on producer like Smith will give Shyamalan an equal (if not superior) to bounce his ideas off of, someone to constantly challenge him, someone to refuse to simply give M. Night carte-blanche just because he made pulled off a great twist ending twelve years ago. I still believe that the visionary and humanistic filmmaker who directed The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable is alive beneath the defensive posturing. This move, working with a powerful movie star who won't be blindly led off a cliff, shows what I can only hope is an acknowledgment from the writer/director that he has some karma to repair.

Of course, at this point the project is just a press release with a token plot synopsis. We still don't have a title, a release date, or any hint that this will end up working in an artistic capacity. But for both parties, it's a step in the right direction. This one gets a highly curious, perhaps naively hopeful 'we'll see...'.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shyamalan has what he got away from for years, an "A" list star. I don't think it's a coincidence that Night's highest grossing pictures starred Willis and Gibson.
I never bothered to check out The Happening, if it starred Tom Cruise, I would have seen it opening night in the theater.



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