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From the Wire: M. Night Shyamalan on Critics

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by Matt Singer
May 30, 2013 1:04 PM
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M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith on the set of "After Earth."
M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith on the set of "After Earth."

There was a time when M. Night Shyamalan was hailed as one of the best young directors in the world. The spiritual successor to Alfred Hitchcock. "The Next Spielberg," according to a famous Newsweek cover. In those days, Shyamalan's name appeared on posters above the title of his movies -- in some cases, in letters almost as big as the title itself.

Times change. You have to squint to find Shyamalan's name on most posters for his new movie, "After Earth." On some, he's not mentioned at all. The winds of critical favor have changed too, and as anyone who's seen M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" knows, it's never good when the wind does things. I've noticed several reviews that note how marginal Shyamalan seems in both the marketing of the film, and in the content itself, while simultaneously blaming him for all of "After Earth"'s problems. 

In an interview with The Huffington Post about "After Earth," Shyamalan discussed his current relationship with film critics, which has flipped almost entirely from the high-flying days of "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable:"

Do you feel that critics have turned on you?

[Laughs] No, no. I definitely think that they're seeing it more -- I think it will be easier to see in a body of work, I think.

You had a critic character in "Lady in the Water."

I don't feel an adversarial relationship to them -- I goof around with them in "Lady in the Water."

But you see why some critics take that as a personal attack? He's brutally killed. 

[Laughs] I know.

And you cast yourself as the writer with the important vision.

Well, it was all about storytelling. And all about kind of all the aspects of storytelling -- that movie's main character is named "Story" and all of that stuff. I mean, it was a tongue-in-cheek movie.

That critic character, Harry Farber (who shares a last name with the great film critic Manny Farber), might have been intended as tongue-in-cheek. But he's more than just brutally killed -- he's brutally killed right as he's telling all the other characters how he would never be killed if he were a character in a movie (because, you see, critics are dumb). And he's brutally killed right after he's almost gotten Bryce Dallas Howard's character brutally killed by giving bad advice based on more faulty critical interpretations (because, you see, critics are dumb and dangerous). And while Farber's leading others astray, Shyamalan himself floats through the movie as a writer (not a critic, because those are bad) whose words will someday inspire a President (to say, I would assume, "I see dead people.").

Teasing aside, I don't have a problem with Shyamalan putting a film critic character in one of his movies, or even with making him a horrible human being (I have met plenty of real critics who were also horrible human beings). But dude: own it! Don't play coy. Just say "Yeah I was getting back at critics a little bit. They bashed my last movie, which I loved and thought was treated unfairly, and I thought I'd bash them back a little. It's only fair." Who does he think he's fooling? Besides dumb critics who are dumb, obviously.

Read more of "M. Night Shyamalan, 'After Earth' Director, On a Sequel to 'Unbreakable' and His Relationship With Critics."

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