Last night, I watched Will Smith's new sci-fi extravaganza After Earth. I wish I could say I enjoyed it, but if I said that, I'd be lying through my teeth; this is by no means the worst movie I've ever seen, and even calling it a bad movie might be unjust. But it doesn't work, not as a whole, and not even in terms of its individual component.
The culprit? Director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan.
At one point in time, I was a massive Shyamalan fan. And lest you think I broke with my fandom at the same time the rest of the world did, here's my bona fides: not only do I think The Village is his best movie, I think it's close to being a masterpiece. I also love The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, so that's four consecutive movies from the man that I'm very, very fond of.
Since then, it's been nothing but dreck: Lady in the Water has its moments, but is filled with terrible acting and weirdly self-aware subplots; The Happening also has good moments, but in other scenes is bad on an Ed Wood level of ineptitude; and The Last Airbender is a complete misfire on ever level.
|Why make a poster where your stars look this grumpy?!?|
The good news is that After Earth is an improvement on all of those films. The bad news is that it still isn't very good, and most of the blame for that must be laid directly at the feet of Shyamalan.
The setup for the plot is this: in the future, humanity has rendered Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. So the military packs everyone up and leaves, and humanity colonizes another world. However, there are aliens in the system who get all butthurt about this, and attack the new human colony by dropping predators called Ursas onto the surface; an Ursa can smell fear, and will run over to you and fuck you up if you get afraid. But good news! If you can manage to not be afraid, the Ursa has no idea how to find you, and you can slice it into a billion pieces with your sword. (If this sounds ridiculous, I'd say you've just passed your hearing exam.) Will Smith plays the first ever soldier to be able to successfully do this. His name is Cypher Raige.
I shit you not: Cypher Raige.
Cypher is a Ranger, i.e., soldier. His son, Kitai, is a Ranger cadet who has just been held back a year by his instructor. Kitai is all butthurt about it, and then Cypher gets all butthurt about Kitai being butthurt. But Cypher takes him along on a training mission to some planet somewhere, so as to soothe everyone's hurt butts. But, surprise! There's an asteroid field that literally comes out nowhere, and wrecks the ship, which ends up crash landing on -- duh-duh-DUMMMMMMMM!!!!! -- Earth. Everyone dies except Cypher, Kitai, and the Ursa they were taking along to use as part of the training exercises. But Cypher is badly injured and can't do shit, so he stays in one half of the ship while Kitai travels a hundred kilometers to the other half so he can retrieve and activate a distress beacon.
One of the film's many problems is that certain plot elements simply do not bear scrutiny. Either that, or I'm a complete moron who is failing to understand incredible simple things. Things like this: does it make any sense for there to be an animal that can only detect fear? That has (presumably) no sight, smell, or hearing? I'm thinking the answer to that is "no" and that the Ursas are subtext brought into the foreground with no thought given to whether they make any actual sense, but hey, I'm willing to concede the possibility that I might simply be too stupid to get it.
Another such plot point: Cypher tells Kitai that everything on Earth has evolved to hunt humanity. Uh...no. If Cypher means that baboons and tigers and eagles and leeches and spiders and whatnot have evolved over the course of millions of years to prey on man, that seems unlikely; humanity has never been the natural prey for any of the animals in this film, unless I am just badly mistaken. But I don't think that's what Cypher means; I think he means that in the thousand years since humanity had been gone from Earth, the wildlife has evolved so as to be a danger to Man. And that's silly for any number of reasons. First, humanity -- as far as this film tells us -- has been absent from Earth on account of how uninhabitable Earth had been made. Secondly, I don't think evolution moves all that far in a mere thousand years.
The thing that by far bothered me the most, though, is that in the future, everyone drops their "r"s. They enunciate the letter "r" in a word like "run"; if they were referring to the Rambo films, they'd enunciate the "r" then, too. But any time the word "Earth" is spoken, it is pronounced "Uth." Every time Kitai calls Cypher "sir," he says "suh." He says it more or less the same way Forrest Gump would say it. And that's just one example of the weird approach to accents. The idea, I suppose, is that in the future, language patterns have evolved and changed. Doing that on film is incredibly risky, and in order for it to work, you've got to really put some time ad effort into it. Here, it initially sounds like Jaden Smith simply has marbles in his mouth, or doesn't know how to speak properly. Then other characters start doing the same thing, and you realize that it's a device of some sort. And then you realize what it means. And then you realize that it's simply a case of a sci-fi idea gone wrong, and wonder what sort of conversations Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan must have had. "Let's have everyone say 'Uth' instead of 'Earth'," one of them must have said to the other; the other squinted his eyes and nodded, unsure, for a moment, then said, "Okay, fuck it, let's do it! After Uth!"
Meanwhile, Jaden can't wait until he's old enough to move out.
More things that bother me:
- In one scene, Kitai is being chased by some bloodthirsty baboons. These animals are fast, and he has to run away from them. The camera keeps showing us that the baboons are practically right on top of him, but right when they get to within what seems like grasping distance, there is an edit, and Kitai will be a dozen paces ahead of them. Within this scene, that must happen half a dozen times. The reason for this is that, clearly, Kitai would be totally incapable of evading the baboons. By all rights, they should catch him and eat the face right off of his skull. Clearly, that can't happen, so Shyamalan falls back on the old "magic of editing" trick. Things like this happen in action movies fairly frequently. Here, you feel it happening. It is a bad, bad scene.
- The spaceship is made out of burlap, vinyl curtains, old carwash brushes, and whale bones. Or weird stuff that sorta looks like those things. One subplot is about man's poor treatment of the whales, so I wouldn't be surprised if those really are whales' bones. But what's with the vinyl curtains and the burlap? (Or is it corduroy?) This is a serious fucking weird-looking ship. So much so that I can only conclude there HAS to be a design reason for it (meaning, in the future, spaceships have to be made out of burlap because ____________________ ). It's a series of really odd choices. Perhaps this was to give the ship a look distinct from other sci-fi movies and tv shows. If so, then...job well done...? I guess...?
- Kitai wears what looks like a stillsuit from Dune. It changes color depending on his environment. I get that. It turns black when he's in danger. I get that less, mainly because I don't know how the suit knows when Kitai is in danger and when he isn't. I don't get why it turns white. What does that mean? Let's assume it makes sense and move on.
- In a flashback, we see a Kitai's sister protecting Kitai from an Ursa by putting him inside a plastic bubble. This, I guess, is to keep the Ursa from sensing Kitai's fear. It is not explained. Is this some sort of anti-fear plastic? Does it merely mask the fear, or does it keep Kitai from being afraid at all? Regardless of which the answer is, why is their home not made entirely of that material? Or assuming the answer is "neither," why does the Ursa not kill Kitai shortly after killing his sister? Heyyyyyy...I'm starting to think this movie is fucking dumb...!
I've seen far worse movies in my life than After
Uth Earth, but let's be clear: this is a bad movie. (Scratch what I said earlier about how saying that might be unjust; writing this review has changed my mind on that score.) On a scene-by-scene level, you will find yourself wondering why Shyamalan made the choices he makes: why a shot is framed the way it is; why the cameraman doesn't move so that that one vinyl curtain that keeps closing over and over will at least be behind the camera rather than in front of it; why an actor says a word a certain way; and so forth.
There are occasional moments of strong imagery, and I like the idea that without humans junking the place up, Earth would be a rather lovely place. But that is not enough for me to recommend this movie to anyone except for masochists.
Those of you hoping for the M. Night resurgence are going to have to keep waiting.
(Speaking of waiting...I am keenly aware that I still owe everyone a second, spoiler-filled review of Star Trek Into Darkness. I had intended to have that out by now, but it just hasn't happened. Sorry about that! It's still on the way; it's just been delayed.)