RIORI Redux: M Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth” Revisited



The Players…

Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Kravitz and Sophie Okonedo.


The Story…

A thousand years in the future, Earth has been abandoned, its populace fleeing environmental degradation. Humanity sets up shop elsewhere, its home world forbidden and eventually all but forgotten. However because of a disastrous interstellar voyage, one General Cypher Raige and his young son, Kitai, are forced to crash-land on the long-abandoned, desolate Earth. Now alone and with his father gravely injured, Kitai must set out to find a rescue beacon that hopefully will save them from their cradle’s hostile, if not vengeful ecosystem.


The Rant (2013)

Another M Night Shyalaman movie?

Yes, another M Night Shyalaman movie. He is of ill repute lately, and his latest effort is no different in reflection. His hottest feature (this one) already has a notorious reputation for being a cataclysmic stink bomb at the multiplex. A failed summer blockbuster if there ever was one. Critics lacerated it. It grossed domestically only a fraction of its budgetary costs (but to be fair, it did recoup a lot overseas). It starred the once unimpeachable Will Smith, king of the summer blockbuster for over a decade, whose rep has now been inextricably damaged. Oh, by the way, it also co-stars his kid! Boo! Hiss! Piss on the screen!

Christ, the masses are a capricious bunch, aren’t we? It’s just a damned movie, after all.

First mistake: perceiving After Earth as is a sci-fi film.

Second mistake: modestly intelligent fans still address the genre as “sci-fi.” We don’t get no tornadoes made of sharks here in science fiction town. Really. No. I always preferred the genre designated as what writer Harlan Ellison termed “speculative fiction.” Stuff than could only exist in your imagination alone until it was time to be borne. Contemporary societal tropes shrouded with the allegory of the fantastic. That kinda stuff. There is, nowadays, very little “science” in science fiction. I doubt since the heady days of Jules Verne there has been much overt science in science-fiction at all, and that was over a century ago. Again, no. In the simpler terms of Ellison: If you like peanuts, you’ll love Sci-Fi!

Third mistake: perceiving this was meant to be a summer movie. After watching Earth, it has the aroma of a very late fall release, shrouded in falling leaves and freed from the farts and darts that we’ve all grown accustomed and/or numbed to during the summer popcorn releases. After Earth has little popcorn going for it. Also, it’s the first true leap Night has made into the spec-fic genre.

And that, curiously enough, is a good thing.

This movie is a film about the dynamics between a father and his son. Granted, it’s 1,000 years into the future, but I guess it’s safe to assume that such relations haven’t evolved too much from present times. I guess the only real diff is the current applications of clubs and flint. Anyway, families are alike all over.

I, like many ‘Mericans, enjoy the blockbusters Will Smith has hosted. Men In Black, Independence Day, Bad Boys, you get the idea. As of late, Will has been either dodging the summer spotlight or…oh, let’s face it. He wants to choose his own roles. Hell, he’s made his bones. Us duffers from Gen X remember him as either “The Fresh Prince Of Bell Air” or of one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and…you (might) get the idea.

Here’s this idea: Will Smith since entering cinema has always been a reliable source of charisma, audacity, and humor we’ve come to expect from a  21st Century film icon. Heretofore is a pleasant way to say you’ve been typecast. Like Leonard Nimoy (who directed a fair amount of reputable movies non-Trek related in the 80’s) as Mr. Spock, Smith is trying to shed his skin. And at the same time, striving to have his cake and…well, you know the drill Agent K (look here please)…huh?

Now the Fresh Prince has a son. And here’s the f*cked up thing about it: he’s a more interesting actor than his dad. You know, the multi-millionaire cinema icon dad former fresh prince dad. A well-adjusted 16-year old (at the time of this screed) son whose following in his dad’s footsteps. And a better, more convincing actor than his well-heeled dad has become.

You get it: I think Jaden Smith is a more engaging actor than Pops. Wanna know why? Earnestness. Every Will Smith movie stinks of bravado. Like the coffee pot that has set on the burner way too long into the morning and ignites a redolent smell of TP that has overspent its taint? Poor Will has had to live up to iconic status that, frankly, I don’t think he wanted in the first place. I’d like to imagine that the guy just wanted to try acting (and let’s facts. Every time Will tries to escape the predictable dumb comedy trope he inadvertently makes a profit. Must be stultifying).

Young Jaden, unhampered by typecasting, has carved out a much more eclectic niche than his rich-beyond-compare dad. I’ve seen the films tucked under Jaden’s belt. The remake of The Karate Kid was pretty good. The Pursuit of Happyness wasn’t bad (it co-starred his dad too.) And you wanna known what? There’s a reason why I credited the prime cast as I did (well, such as it was. There were less than at least eight humans I saw. And none of them Night. Looks like he saw my corollary). Jaden carried the film. And very well I might add. I found he conveyed appropriate emotion scene for scene better than his big-ticket dad (whom I’ve never seen act so damned stern before. The usual Big Willie charisma has all but vanished here).

As for the technical flourishes that are always evident in Night’s movies, After Earth was not for wanting. The sets and locations were nothing less than beautiful. The cinematography was exceptional. The film had an excellent score, courtesy of James Newton Howard (he makes the music to all of Night’s movies). And again CGI was used tastefully, not with splash and dash to make a lot of noise. On the contrary, After Earth is never a loud movie. It’s restrained and patient. It takes its time. This is probably why it failed as a summer movie. Too reserved. Or whatever expectations audiences have of Night’s movies, this failed too. This was the most linear, straight-forward tale Night has spun yet. Based in the traditional coming-of-age story and the dynamic of father/son bonding, Night cranked out a very simple, very affecting movie. I think toning down his alleged filmmaking monomania has done Night some good here.

Another element that is always present in Night’s movies and is not lost here is the idea of family. Every film the man has made revolves around the ties that bind, especially in Unbreakable and Signs. After Earth is no exception, and has been distilled down to the very basic element of family: parent and child, one caring for the other. It’s a simple dynamic, but an effective one, and I believe that if we didn’t have the prime cast consist of actual real-life father and son, the movie would not have worked. Most claim the film already didn’t work. Then again, it was summertime, people have expectations and the fact it was a Shyalaman film, there were also preconceived notions about what they were getting into. I guess this movie could remind us all of the immortal words of Flava Flav: don’t believe the hype.

To wrap it up, I have become slowly but surely aware of what I have been smearing all and up down Facebook between and betwixt my “friends” and what I regard as my local family of fleshoids (I enjoy Futurama), that I have since become somewhat of a fixture here. When I openly announced that I was gonna watch After Earth, the groans and screams were nothing less than satanically shrill. Anyways and simply put, audience screaming doesn’t make for a proper critique, especially if it’s the wrong time of year.


Rant Redux (2019)

Admittedly I have been rewatching some of these old films to get perspective on what I was trying to do back in 2013. Although I was drunk most of the time to endure some of the schlock, I think it’s fair to say that even professional movie critics need to watch a certain film more than once to have a solid opinion. Granted along come milestones like The Godfather, GoodFellas, Silence Of The Lambs, Annie Hall and others that require no further examination to decide they are great films. Sometimes, we have curiosities that need to percolate over the years for a proper verdict to be decided. Blade Runner, Night Of The Living Dead, They Live, 2001: A Space Odyessy, Die Hard and other possible cultish movies that just needed to steep awhile in the collective dark, deep teapot of the soul.

(Some good BS there, eh?)

Boink. After Earth is not one of those movies. By no means an outright bad flick, but we’ve all seen its like before. That being said, it seemed so has Night.

Pedestrian, formulaic and almost totally linear, Earth is a retread of a million S/F survival films and death is always a rude neighbor with endless kegs and a DJ that always spins Oakenfold spinning Oakenfold. And they never invite you over. Yeah, you’ve been here…there before.

I also believe this movie tanked because it sure as sh*t did not feel like a Night film at all. Suspense and utter weirdness has been the director’s stock in trade all his career. But sci-fi? Uh-uh. The difficultly in shooting a decent S/F movie is to bow to the will of interior logic and don’t apply a lot of deus ex machina or purport the future setting is indeed in the future. The best S/F films are loaded with social commentary and the human factor (EG: the original Planet Of The Apes, the aformentioned 2001Blade Runner, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Matrix, etc), not gee-whiz-bucky-gizmo-Flash Gordon hyperbole. Okay, so the first Matrix movie had some of that, but the plot was classy and made you think.

That, to whit, is was makes S/F a genre special. Of course all movies may make you think, but science fiction must make you think in order to appreciate it. I suppose its why most Star Wars adherents declare that their pet saga is more fantasy than sci-fi. I can agree, and me being a Trekkie I dig the social commentary angle rather than the fantastic. Sorry. The rules of creating a decent S/F must be concrete.

Earth is abstract, propelled by a very generic plot device (EG: fathers and sons, fathers and sons…), technobabble, a lot of CGI hoopla, and nothing subtle for you to mull over. And the sick, sad part of it all is that Earth rolled out like Night was so original and clever delivering this pseudo-morality tale of family, redemption and forgiveness. It sure as sh*t has been done before many times. Ever see the original Star Wars trilogy? Yep.

There are two things about Earth that I did respect (and only two. Everything else was padding, fluff and afterthought) was the examination of solitude and enjoying the dynamics of an acting family working together. Consider other movies where parents and kids (and sometimes even elder generations) collaborate. On Golden Pond with its sentimental brittleness between Dad Henry and daughter Jane Fonda. Or the sheer goofiness (intentional or otherwise) of Kirk, Michael and Cam Douglas in the cheekily titled It Runs In The Family. Or heck, even the Murray family with Bill, Joel, John and Brian Doyle crossing paths in all sorts of media. It can be a real treat to watch how family collides with work when it comes to making movies; you can see where the lines blur. Smear would be a better term with Earth. Cypher and Kitan are as oil and water as you could get, yet a keen eye can tell Will Smith is really keen on working with his son on a movie. Perhaps that real-life bond softened the blow of a rather trite film. Call me a romantic.

Or just call me a dad who’s proud of his kid when she shows earnest creativity. At least more earnest than what Night tried here.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Despite its flaws, the two factors I spoke of are interesting as they were played out. The rest? Meh, with a capital meh.


Even More Stray Observations…

  • Always always always wear your seat belt. Always.
  • Towards the beginning of act two: was that a scrunt?
  • “Put my damned cutlass away!”
  • Back in the days of old school anthology TV series (EG: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, etc) certain episodes concocted an impetus to a story was some blah monster or a herd of alleged monsters. Such monster plot devices were dubbed “the bear.” In Earth the Raige’s have to best a nasty creature called an “ursa” hunting them. Night is a known Zone enthusiast, and you need to brush up on your Latin.
  • “Without knowing how to be alone, we cannot know how to be with others and sustain the necessary autonomy.” – bell hooks

Next Installment…

Ahoy! A quick trip back to the museum to see The Squid And The Whale square off again, starring that chick from Ozark and Atticus Finch.


 

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