Sunday, June 9, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: After Earth

After Earth is the latest from king of the sci-fi summer blockbusters Will Smith and director M. Night Shyamalan.

Smith gets a "story by" credit in the film. Impressed? Well, don't be. His contribution consisted of seeing an episode of the TV series I Shouldn't Be Alive (in which a father and son crashed their car in a remote area and the son had to walk a hundred miles to find help), and commissioning a script based on the episode. So he basically got a writing credit for lying on the couch and watching TV.

Come to think of it, a film based on that original car crash premise might have more interesting than what we got.

Many are saying that the film is nothing more than a vanity project for Smith, designed to jump start his son's acting career. I have no doubt that's true. But so what? Non-actors do this all the time and no one cares. If a plumber brings his son into the business, no one looks at the kid and says, "You only got this job because of your old man." So why is it bad when actors do the same with their kids?

That said, I think it should only be done when the kid shows some true talent, which is most definitely not the case here. I feel like a heel for picking on a kid, but Jaden Smith doesn't have even a fraction of the talent or easy-going charm his father had at his age.

I had absolutely no idea this was an M. Night Shyamalan movie until I saw the opening credits. I'm positive this was a deliberate move by the Columbia Pictures marketing department. Shyamalan hasn't exactly been pumping out the blockbusters lately, so they apparently wanted to keep his involvment on the QT, lest his presence chase away potential ticket buyers. 

Actually Mr. Shyamalan probably deserves some kind of award. Not every director can take a magnetic and charismatic actor like Will Smith and turn him into a soulless, unemotional automaton like he is in this film. Congratulations, M. Night!

Some of the philosophy and pop psychology spouted by Will Smith's character sounds a lot like Scientology, which isn't really a surprise. At least no one in the film was named Xenu.

Lastly, Will Smith was hopeful this film would be the first leg of a trilogy. Based on its poor performance at the box office, that seems unlikely.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
After permanently befouling the Earth, humanity leaves and settles on a new planet called Nova Prime. One thousand years later, aliens called Skrels attack the new colony with specially bred monsters (called Ursas) that can smell fear. A ranger named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) discovers the only way to beat them is to not feel fear, rendering yourself invisible to the monsters. This technique is called "ghosting."

Cypher's son Kitai (Jaden Smith) desperately seeks his father's approval and wants to become a ranger like him. The two take a trip on a spaceship as a bonding experience, but the ship crashes on the most dangerous planet in the galaxy: Earth.

With Cypher seriously injured with two broken legs, Kitai must travel through several hundred miles of dangerous wilderness, locate the tail section of the ship and activate the rescue beacon, all while avoiding the deadly prowling Ursa or both men will die.
 
Pros:
• Kudos to the filmmakers for setting the story a thousand years from now (give or take). It always bugs me when a sci-fi movie features warp drive and other super advanced technology and then takes place in the far-off year of 2030.

That said, according to the official back story, humans were forced to leave the poisoned Earth in 2071. Sigh...

• Everyone in the film speaks with a weird faux Southern accent, which is an odd choice on the part of the filmmakers. On the other hand people living on another planet a thousand years from now probably would speak differently than we're used to.

Cons:
• Everyone in this movie acts in a very stiff, stilted and stylized manner, almost like they've all been sedated. Was this a conscious choice? Again, people a thousand years from now would likely act quite differently than we do. Is it possible they did this on purpose to create a futuristic feel? If so I applaud the effort, even if it did fail miserably.

• Will Smith's character is named "Cypher Raige." Yow. Who came up with that name, George Lucas?

Shyamalan needs to look up the word "cypher" in the dictionary. It means "a person or thing of no importance; nonentity." That's actually pretty apt considering Smith's emotional range in this film.

Cypher is supposed to be a battle-hardened military officer who's emotionally distant with his son. I get that. But it's taken to ridiculous, sometimes hilarious, extremes. His success at killing Ursas is due to his not being able to feel fear. Apparently he divested himself of all other emotions while he was at it.

• If you're going to populate your film with basically two characters then you'd better make damn sure they're interesting. These two aren't. 

Kitai's late sister, who we glimpse briefly in flashback, is ten times more interesting than either main character.

• During the space trip, Cypher feels something's not quite right with the ship. He takes off his wedding ring and holds it against the inner hull of the ship, where it somehow amplifies vibrations from outside. Cypher interprets these vibrations as an oncoming space storm. Nope!

Space is called that for a reason. There ain't nothing in it. Vibrations need air or land or something to travel through.

• We're told that Earth is the most dangerous planet in the galaxy because everything there has evolved to specifically kill man. Um... humans left the planet a thousand years ago. Why would animals evolve to kill prey that no longer exists? 

Now if they want to say all the animals have evolved to the point in which they just happen to be deadly to man, that would be OK. But implying that they're revenge-evolving is just silly.

I was a bit underwhelmed by Earth's so-called "danger." We're beaten about the head with the fact that Earth is such a treacherous place you'd likely die a minute after stepping foot on open ground. Yet a gawky fourteen year old walks a hundred miles or so and survives.

I was expecting Kitai's trek to be a lot more dangerous. Instead it was just kind of... dull. We get just a light sprinkling of mutated animals every now and then that don't seem all that hard to avoid or defeat.

Dullness is a problem with most "quest" movies like this. The character has to get from Point A to Point B, so you know there'll be a lot of dangerous but easily beatable obstacles thrown in his way to pad out the run time, until we get to the inevitable Level Boss. Which is exactly what happens here.

I suppose if it had been more dangerous then it would have been too unrealistic to believe a kid like Kitai could survive the trip.

• One example of Earth's abundant dangers: The temperature drops to deadly levels every night, with the exception of a few conveniently located "hot spots."

Everywhere Kitai travels he's surrounded by abundant verdant green foliage. Wouldn't such freezing temperatures kill the plant life? Yes, they show the leaves folding up as the temperature drops, but… it all seemed a bit sketchy.

Oddly enough, all the newly evolved animal species seem vulnerable to the cold as well. Several times we see animals instinctively heading for hot spots as the temperature drops. So they've evolved to kill humans who aren't even on the planet anymore, but they haven't evolved a resistance to the variable temperatures. Got it. 
 
• At one point Kitai is stung by a venomous leech (!). His father calmly and dispassionately (how else?) instructs him to inject himself with an antidote or he'll die. I could swear he says the cure comes in three parts, but we only see Kitai administer two.


I will admit it's possible I'm wrong on this; I'd need to see the film again to make sure, and that ain't happenin.'

• It's the After Earth drinking game! Take a shot every time Cypher Raige says, "Take a knee!"

• One of the many features of the magic survival suit Kitai wears: It changes color when it senses danger. It's never explained if the suit is somehow sensing danger (like Peter Parker and his spider-sense) or if it's sensing the emotional state of the wearer. Unfortunately it seems to work at random, only when the screenwriters remember it. 

Even when it does work it acts strangely. At one point some mutated baboons attack Kitai and the suit turns black. Why black? Who knows? He's in the middle of a green jungle. The black suit actually makes him more visible. Maybe it's just a warning to the wearer and not camouflage? Later on when he's freezing it turns white, which makes a bit more sense.

Eventually Kitai comes to a cliff and discovers he can't make it to the tail section because he doesn't have enough of the magic lung juice that allows him to breathe Earth's tainted air. Back in the ship, Cypher's computer shows him that if Kitai flies to the tail section he'll make it. He sighs and tells him to come back. 

That seems a bit out of character for an old war horse who's survived dozens of campaigns. Yes, the flying thing is dangerous and Kitai could die trying it, but they're both going to die anyway if he aborts the mission. Why not have the kid give it a shot?

Kitai refuses his father's order and rages against him for not being around as he grew up. Hey kid, it's not like your dad went out to get a pack of smokes and never came back-- he was protecting your world and your selfish little ass from aliens! Credit where credit's due-- Jaden Smith actually does a decent job of acting in this scene. I said in this scene!

Anyway, Kitai defies his father and flings himself off the cliff and his magic suit instantly sprouts a pair of wings, like those of a flying squirrel. At no point did Cypher ever tell him flying was an option. So did Kitai know he could fly? Or was he just petulantly throwing himself off the cliff out of spite and lucked out because he was wearing a flying suit?

While flying (or I guess gliding), Kitai attracts the attention of some giant eagle thing which attacks him. He wakes up in its nest, which is full of baby eagle things. I'm pretty sure the mama brought him there as food for her youngins. Suddenly the nest is attacked by a pack of mutated tigers. Kitai fights them off but all the babies are killed. He escapes the nest in the confusion and continues on foot as the eagle thing follows him from the air. 

That night the temperature plunges as he remembers he was supposed to look for a hot spot. He passes into blissful oblivion as he begins to freeze to death. Then he wakes up the next morning to find that the eagle thing dragged him into a hole and sacrificed itself by lying on top of him to keep him warm. Huh?

I don't understand why it saved him when a few hours earlier it was trying to feed him to its kids. My movie-going pal KW Monster suggested the eagle thing took a liking to Kitai because it thought he was another bird (what with the wings and the flying and the soaring). I guess that's as good an explanation as any in a movie like this, but... it still doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

• The alien Skrels deliberately designed the Ursas so they're blind and can only sense their prey "by fear." Wouldn't eyes and a heightened sense of smell work just as well, if not better? If the filmmakers wanted the Ursas to have strange alien senses, how about giving them eyes that see infra-red?

And how do Ursas navigate when they're not smelling fear? How do they avoid walking into walls or off cliffs?

• Kitai finally reaches the tail section and finds the emergency beacon. It won't work though (man, all the technology in this movie seems very glitchy and prone to malfunction) because of something in the air that's blocking the signal. Never mind that this thing can send out what appears to be a powerful visible Death Star-like beam, it can't poke through a few clouds. 

So Kitai climbs up the side of a volcano to reach higher ground. An active volcano mind you, one that features flowing rivers of lava. Seems like the intense heat ougtta affect him, maybe even kill him, but no. He doesn't even break a sweat. Must be his magic suit protecting him from the heat. Shouldn't it have turned red or something?

After Earth is by no means a good movie, but despite its many problems I couldn't bring myself to hate it. It's like some clumsy kid with no athletic talent who's trying to make the basketball team-- you just feel kind of sorry for it. With a competent director and a better child star it might have actually been good. I give it a B-.

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