Skip to main content

Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future.


After Earth
(2013)

Big star vanity projects rarely seem to turn out well. Combine a major name with a director not renowned for his modesty and you have a recipe for a heftily out-of-touch piece of filmmaking. Given the critical mauling of After Earth, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t become the object of ridicule through obvious bad punnery; After Birth would be a suitably chastening retitling. But for all that this isn’t a terribly good film, it’s not terribly terrible either. Sure, the script suffers from holes you could pilot a spaceship through, the dialogue is frequently disastrous, the performances aren’t up to much and the special effects lack something special. But for all that, the movie is reasonably entertaining.


I put that mostly down to M Night Shyamalan. However lurching his fall from grace may have been over the last five or six years (since his vanity-massaging bomb Lady in the Water, so closer to seven), he remains a talented director. It’s his writing that has repeatedly let him down. The diminishing returns of his slow-burn directing style and plot-twist-first approach to writing resulted in his abandoning them altogether after The Village; even he had to recognise the tide was turning against him. But he did so in a backhanded way, pointedly criticising his critics in Lady in the Water. Which in turn was even more lambasted than The Village. He clawed back a commercial reprieve with The Happening, but it was his most pilloried picture yet. My reaction to it was not dissimilar to that of After Earth; I kind of enjoyed it despite itself. Despite Mark Wahlberg’s career-low, and despite the wonderful scene where our protagonists attempt to outrun the wind. Razzie nominations beckoned, as they no doubt will for After Earth (I suspect this time it’s a shoe-in to win a couple too). Since then, the director has been on something of a back foot. No one was especially kind about The Last Airbender, but it did reasonably well at the box office and as an adaptation (by the director, of course) he seemed to escape the kind of brickbats reserved for his own creations. Something of that is also at play with After Earth. He takes a screenplay credit (with The Book of Eli’s Gary Whitta) but is shielded from the worst of the blame through his star’s presiding involvement. It was Smith who came up with the story, Smith who conceived it as a vehicle for Smith Jr, and Smith who left his natural charm at home in his supporting turn.


Shyamalan probably wasn’t the best choice to give the script a good seeing to, of course. The man who came up with The Happening was unlikely to discern deficiencies of logic in the basic concept. When I reviewed Elysium, I omitted to mention After Earth amongst the wave of original summer sci-fi releases. After Earth eclipses that movie for conceptual incoherence, and it comes up very short when compared to the year’s other abandoned Earth picture, Oblivion.  The most obvious question, one that hits you in the face no matter how much of an easy ride you’re willing to give the picture in other departments, is how life on Earth can evolve to become hostile towards a species that no longer exists there. Even if the premise were intended to mock the concept of evolution (stranger things have happened), it’s the makers who end up with egg on their faces. Perhaps the creatures just collectively decided on an antagonistic disposition towards humankind. They’re obviously a discerning hive of transformed life, as the giant condor that starts out trying to kill young Jaiden decides to save him (ostensibly because Jaden fended off saber cats attempting to eat the condor’s young, but unless the condor has highly evolved faculties, all it’s going to understand is that its babies are dead and Smith Jr is standing over them).


It’s also a bit of a problem that, given the Earth is quarantined because it is so dangerous, it doesn’t really seem all that hostile. Jaden spends most of his journey in relative safety. Sure there are some savage leeches, some big birds and big baboons and big cats, it’s difficult to breathe and it gets cold at night, but the only really malign influence is the one they bring with them.  I also don’t think this being a kids’ film (albeit a fairly bloody one; wounded Will isn’t a nice sight) excuses the slipshod scenario that has been devised. The Earth was evacuated; so everyone left? Really? That just seems like nonsense. Indeed, I was expecting Jaden to run into some plot-twist descendants of those who opted to stay behind, rather than receiving comfort from a kindly condor.


As is de rigueur with future vision movies, an introductory sprawl was considered necessary to inform the viewer where we are and what is going on. This is delivered by Kitai Raige (one Jaden Smith), and the lacklustre vocal performance, combined with an extremely underpowered narrative, and design work, is a taster of what’s in store. Humanity has settled on Nova Prime but fallen foul of another race, which set the Ursas on them; creatures that smell fear. Kitai’s dad, Cypher Raige (I know, WTF?) discovers a method of being free from fear, called “ghosting”, through which the “blinded” Ursas can be beaten. So Cypher is perhaps the least subtle possible personification of the father who is impossible to live up to. It doesn’t help that Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death, and his dad blames him for it too. You get where all these clichés are going, right? That’s why they call them clichés. When their spaceship crashes on Earth (fans of the number 23 will note that the craft is prominently numbered H-230) and Cypher is incapacitated, Kitai must over come his fear (subtext is for wimps when such themes are so bluntly foregrounded), making a journey across hazardous terrain to activate a distress beacon.  And so, it will become a journey of discovery for the two Raiges.


The Ursas are your traditional oversized alien bugs, and testify to the lack of originality on display here. Straight out of Starship Troopers, there's even some reportage where we see Smith's Cypher Raige on a bug-stomping rampage; it desperately needed Paul Verhoeven to add some purposeful funnies (remember the censored news item in that movie, when the science division sticks a probe up a bug where the sun doesn’t shine?) This is a horrifically sombre movie (the cheerupwillsmith.com thing is entirely understandable), and its lack of self-awareness lends it to ridicule.


As far the "Fear is not real" message, who knows? Maybe Will has been spending too much time with his mate the Cruiser. Maybe the picture testifies to his much-rumoured sympathies towards Scientology (there are all sorts of offbeat theories concerning Smith’s beliefs and predilections, but isn’t that a malaise of most celebrities?) Certainly, it’s credentials as a flop bearing its message loud-and-proud beckon comparisons with John Travolta’s adaptation of the L. Ron Hubbard sci-fi Battlefield Earth. I’m not sure something as general as this fairly glib self-empowerment yarn lends itself to an entire agenda, however. One might draw parallels between the unchallenged position of the movie that martial discipline is a positive influence on the developing young mind (whatever disagreements crop up along the way) and the control structure of the Church of Big Ron, but the movie seems most vested in age-old notions of rites of passage and what it means to become a man. However corny and unpalatable, when Cypher rises to salute his son, so signalling that he is now deserving of ranger status, it’s about as traditional an arc as they come in story terms.


Nevertheless, there's something a little unsettling about putting your 14-year old son through intensive training in order to make him a tip-top physical specimen. It's not as if Will wasn't a scrawny streak of piss until the late-90s. It suggests scarily focussed parenting of the sort they make precautionary Lifetime movies about… There’s an obvious reading here that Will is Cypher Raige and he knows that young Jaden can never live up to his father’s legacy. One might suggest that Will’s absenteeism from the big screen, ostensibly for family reasons, is to give his son a push start; "You can never eclipse the old man, but if I indulge in enough vanity-transference perhaps I can manufacture a piece of stardom for you". It seems curiously thickheaded of Smith to assume that such blatant nepotism can end well. It would be all well and good if Jaden was the next Fresh Prince, and his career evolved naturally, but what Smith is doing is the worst kind of handicapping. In one swift move, audiences have learnt to resent his son.


The biggest problem is that Jaden is no chip off the old block in the charisma stakes (Kitai’s intuitive survival suit is infinitely more interesting than he is). I don’t think his performance is as bad as has been made out, certainly not so the affair became an unintentional comedy. And the part tailored for him isn’t exactly a showcase for anyone’s natural exuberance; with that in mind I'm willing to cut him some slack. The making of featurettes show a quick repartee with his old man, so maybe he's just really concentrating on being a mopey brat. Either way, he’s not helping the movie. But neither is dad, reining in everything that defines him as a star. Yes, he’s proved he can play a curmudgeon but no one is going to be congratulating him for it.


So it comes back to what works, and that’s entirely down to Shyamalan’s chops calling the shots. He keeps up the pace throughout a (relatively) lean running time, and doesn’t let the ropey effects, deadening dialogue and unbecoming performances kill the engine. I doubt that we’ll ever see him working entirely from another’s script, which is more the pity. As for Jaden, perhaps After Earth’s reception will have him thinking about his next move career-wise. After all, he’s 15. Time to make some big decisions. Not since Sofia Coppola has the hubris of a parent gone so punished. Maybe it’s worth him considering a career in directing.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.