Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You Got Shyalaman-ed

It may be difficult, but remember when M. Night Shyamalan was actually considered a good director? With the release of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, the director was a shot of fresh air amid a sea of dry, unimaginative movies. His infamous and unpredictable twists became his staple, eagerly awaited by audiences around the world. It's uncertain where it all went wrong. People were strongly divided on his 2004 effort The Village and again in 2006's Lady in the Water. I don't know a single soul who will admit to liking his R-rated The Happening, and his adaptation of children's series The Last Airbender may go down as one of the most reviled movies of all time. But while he's certainly hit rock-bottom creatively, there's nothing saying that a director can't return to his early quality of production, and Shyamalan certainly hopes that After Earth will put him back in the upper echelon of crowd-pleasing directors once more. Helping him out are the father/son pairing of Will and Jaden Smith. Will, of course, is one of the top-grossing actors of the modern era, with such hits as Men in Black, Ali, and Independence Day being successful largely due to his presence. While Jaden does not (obviously) have the filmography of his legendary father, he did play major roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still and the Karate Kid remake, marking his place as one to keep an eye on. And of course both father and son starred in the acclaimed Pursuit of Happyness, whose success the filmmakers are trying to emulate in this science fiction tale.

Where are we, Kansas?
A thousand years after we destroyed our ecosystem, Earth has become a death-trap evolved to kill us. We responded by taking our people to a far-off colony and starting over. Now Earth is getting it's first human visitors in a long time, in the form of a crashed spaceship with two confirmed survivors: General Cypher Rage (Will Smith) and his teenage son Kitai (Jaden). They had been traveling to another planet for survival training when a meteor shower damaged their ship and forced them to crash-land in this inhospitable place, where the General suffers from two broken legs that leave him incapacitated. Worse, their emergency beacon was damaged in the crash, and with it almost all hope of being rescued. There is only one chance, as Kitai must journey to the broken tail section of the ship, a few days' journey, to find a second beacon there. He must face all kinds of impossible odds and unpredictable obstacles, but one thing he might not be able to handle is the cargo the ship had been carrying; a beast so fearsome that few if any could survive in the face of its rage.
Prescient about the future, or just being a dick?
Even with all the usual sci-fi trappings, After Earth is primarily a story about the bond between fathers and sons. It's obvious from moment one that Kitai feels inferior to his war hero father, and is doing anything in his power to make up for his presumed shortcomings. In turn, Cypher is a stern, military father who doesn't seem to be able to understand his emotionally-sensitive son. It's this VERY basic idea that forms the core of the story, and not the effects and situation surrounding it, a tale provided in turn with a screenplay by The Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta and from a concept attributed to father Smith.. It's hardly original, but considering that almost all of Shyamalan's effort is focused on fostering this bond, it's nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

Um, you're not strapped into your safety harness. That's a big no-no.
Unfortunately, while the concept itself is admirable, the execution is far from it. Obviously, a large percentage of that blame belongs to Shyamalan, who is ultimately hampered when you take away his one major tool. That's right, there are absolutely NO twists in After Earth, unless you count the fact that the pair are, in-fact, on our current planet, a fact pushed in every trailer and on every poster for the film. It illustrates how little the director can do with a relatively straightforward script, and what could have been before becomes a pipe dream as little to any of the story has anything beyond "get from one place to the next", with a few forced moments of father/son bonding. And that doesn't even cover the scientific head-scratchers, such as how a planet could possible evolve to kill humans when they haven't been around for 1000 years. Note to anybody and everybody: even if you don't believe in the idea of evolution, it most definitely doesn't work that way. Or perhaps the moment when Cypher argues for Kitai to make his way to a mountaintop to send the distress signal, when the "mountain" in question is obviously an active volcano.
Taking a page from Tebow's book.
The filmmakers could have made up for the story transgressions if their efforts had excelled in either the special effects department or the acting corps, but both seem destined to disappoint their audiences. The SFX is almost cartoonish, with even basic creatures obvious CGI creations. The environments are certainly lush enough, but don't quite make up for the lackadaisical creature design. But worse is the acting, in which both Smiths adopt a dialect that's almost as harsh to the ear as fingernails across a chalkboard. Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz are better but are relegated to small doses due to the script. If that weren't enough, the film sidelines Will,  meaning that almost all of their scenes together are over a communication device. The film subsequently becomes focused on Jaden, a mistake as he doesn't yet have the natural charisma his father had at almost the same age. Kitai quickly becomes unwatchable, and as he takes central stage, so does he drag down After Earth with him.
Will Smith is giving me the stink eye for this review.
And drag it down he and everybody else does. This might have been a decent film with different actors, a different director, better special effects, a different story and an altered concept, but... well, that's just about everything, isn't it? It's rare when a film gets just about EVERYTHING wrong, even with the mediocre fare they've put out in 2013. It's still not the worst that I've seen this year (that's still the abysmal Movie 43) but it ought to be remembered among that pack when it's all done. Really, there's nothing to see here. This isn't the sci-fi fare you're looking for.

For God's sake, just RUN!

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

Shyamalan is the reason I WON'T see this film. I can't think of any other director who's work I've paid to see, any word than M. Night's (and that includes Schumacher). Yes, "The Sixth Sense" had a nice mood and was clever and "Unbreakable" was decent, but good lord, the crap he's done since then… I truly believe if Ed Wood was given the amount of money to work with that Shyamalan 's given he could come up with much better films than "Devil" and the horrible "The Happening". There are a handful of films in my moviegoing lifetime that I've wanted to leave the theater because the work was so bad, so horrible to sit through and "The Happening" is one of them.

The biggest shame in all of this is there are many talented men & women out there who deserve the money and opportunities to ply their directing trade, but they can't get a break yet Hollywood continues to hire this hack. (and I stand by my hack description)