DEVIL (2010)

Clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, Devil was billed as the first installment in “The Night Chronicles,” a series of anthology films that would each deal with the supernatural in contemporary urban society. While Brian Nelson and John Erick Dowdle handled the actual screenwriting and directing duties for this movie, Shyamalan served as producer and came up with the movie’s story. Over and above the “Night Chronicles” branding, his name was used to promote Devil in trailers. You might remember sitting in the theater back in 2010, seeing these words come up on screen:

“A new nightmare … from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.”

When Shyamalan’s name appeared, my theater erupted in laughter. This was a widespread phenomenon, not limited to one multiplex. Videos of it happening appeared on YouTube, and Entertainment Weekly even picked up the story, running it with the headline, “Moviegoers laugh at sight of M. Night Shyamalan’s name. How has it come to this?”

Devil hit theaters two months after The Last Airbender, and review-wise, it may have suffered some residual ill will from that movie. Still, at 52% on the Tomatometer, it’s well above The Last Airbender’s 5%. For the most part, this is an agreeable time-waster, one that draws the viewer in with a menacing atmosphere and serviceable performances. It’s a reminder that even in the exile years between Lady in the Water and After Earth, not everything with Shyamalan’s name attached to it was outright terrible.

The plot involves five strangers — including two future Spider-Man: Homecoming Shockers, Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green — who get stuck in an elevator, where bad things start to happen. The scenario is essentially a claustrophobic reimagining of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. With this movie, Signs, The Village, Lady in the WaterThe Visit, Split, and even After Earth, with its planet devoid of human life, a clear pattern of controlled scenarios in isolated settings emerges in Shyamalan’s work. Confined to a mental hospital, Glass only looks to continue that pattern.

Maybe part of the reason Shyamalan prefers these kinds of contained stories is because it allows him to follow his own loopy logic without the outside world impinging on that. In Devil, a religious security guard named Ramirez sees what looks like a grainy pancake-face flash on the security camera. In no time at all, it feels like he’s jumping to wild conclusions, uttering the line, “You must consider that one of these people might be the devil.”

That’s Shyamalogic. Ramirez also provides some needless voiceover narration, giving Devil a moralistic bent as it preaches forgiveness and shows us again amid chance encounters how “everything happens for a reason.” Including director’s jail?


In 2012, an article on Grantland talked about how Will Smith and his manager had purposely put their heads together and analyzed box-office results to discern specific patterns. The highest grossing films, they realized, were almost uniformly movies with special effects and creatures. Smith appears to have built his career choices around this knowledge, using it to maintain a string of #1 blockbusters for many years. The late screenwriter William Goldman evidently thought Smith was our only true-blue movie star, because — as the article put it — “every one of his movies makes money.”

A year after that article, After Earth hit theaters … and flopped. It’s the movie that finally broke Smith’s winning streak and relieved us of our last movie star. He later called it the “most painful failure” of his career.

With this film, Shyamalan’s secretarial phase continued. By now, the director had almost gone full journeyman and was reduced to being a co-screenwriter on someone else’s story. He and Gary Whitta penned the script, but Smith devised the story and it’s not hard to imagine Shyamalan being a slave to his vision. In the marketing, Sony even tried to hide the fact that Shyamalan was involved. Ironically, this may have actually contributed to the movie’s financial failure.

Whoever’s to blame, After Earth does come off mostly like a Smith family vanity project, with the elder Smith starring alongside his son, Jaden. Zoe Kravitz also plays his daughter, but in a weird way, the idea that nepotism, a kind of misguided parental love, fueled the casting almost humanizes After Earth and makes me want to go easier on it.

This is a movie where everything just seems ill-advised and heavy-handed, even character names. Smith’s character is referred to without irony as “General Cypher Raige.” He’s a man who has learned to master his fear so that he can fearlessly wade into battle with a cutlass and use it to strike down *ahem* creatures. Those creatures, which are brought to life with *ahem* special effects, track their prey by detecting the pheromones of fear. Did I mention that the movie’s got something to do with overcoming fear?

For some reason, both father and son utilize wobbly accents: they pronounce, “Earth,” like “Uh-th.” Jaden’s character, Kitai, is the real protagonist. The movie is basically his extended jungle run. He eludes computer-generated baboons, does flying squirrel moves over the side of cliffs, and runs up the slope of billowing volcanoes.

In 2019, After Earth feels like the kind of movie that would go straight to Netflix, much like Smith’s last film, Bright, did (despite adhering to the creature-and-special-effects formula for success). If it seems like I’ve emphasized Smith over Shyamalan in this section, and it’s only because that’s the treatment Shyamalan himself had to endure.

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