Wednesday, June 5, 2013

After Earth

Get out your change-o-sticks and liquid-air capsules, we're watching After Earth!
"Everything on Earth has evolved to kill you.
To combat that, your suit has evolved to do jack shit."
It's the far-flung future, 1000 years after humanity has left Earth. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), crash-land on Earth, and when Cypher is injured, it's up to Kitai to go out and retrieve a homing beacon from the tail end of the ship. Is he fearless enough to do the job?

So before we get into the review, realize that it is a movie directed and partially written by M. Night Shyamalan, so lower your expectations. No, lower. Looooower… Ok, that's good.

First of all: Cypher Raige? Is this a terrible 80's cyborg movie? Is this Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon? No? Then, why? Just why? I mean, Kitai and Faia I'll let you have because 'future' but Cypher Raige? Who do you think you are?
The Raige name is a proud name, from his
father Overkill and his grandfather Everyman.

Ok, that aside, After Earth is surprisingly… not terrible. I wouldn't say it's great, and definitely not on par with Shyamalan's two best films, but it's certainly better than the last 4 or 5 he's done. The story isn’t bad, but… well, I don't think Shyamalan knows how to do Sci-fi properly.

I think that this would have fared better if they discovered they’d crash-landed on Earth about halfway through the movie, instead of everyone knowing beforehand. It would have gelled better with the aesthetic that he was trying to go for; if this was flung far, far into the future, so much so that Earth was a forgotten memory and merely whispered about as a legend, it would have made sense for them to be unsure of the planet’s identity. But since they know it is Earth from the very beginning, with a completely extraneous opening (with a twice-extraneous narration by Jaden Smith), and they allude to the Earth a lot, and Cypher tells him when they first hit the rock that it's Earth… the future they set up doesn't make sense or connect back to the tech we already have.

See, this would work as a fantasy, like Star Wars. They have organic looking ships and changey-stick weapons that could have evolved from some other world. But if you're connecting it to the world we have now, well, you need a connection. They don't have things that we have now! In the beginning, a war vet in a wheel/hover chair with a missing leg comes to thank Cypher and he wants to stand, so he asks his comrades to help him up. Why doesn't this man have a robot leg? Or even a prosthetic leg? Because, we have those now. And it didn't look like he just got out of surgery. Is it that Shyamalan wrote it that way, because he wanted the image of the guy struggling? Is it because of bad writing on Shyamalan’s part, because he didn't think it through properly?

And let's talk about the amazing sci-fi super-suit Kitai wears. It can change color when enemies are near, sprout wings to transform into a wing-suit, and it comes with a communicator and virtual display on his arm, but it DOESN'T have temperature control, active camouflage, a helmet, or even freaking gloves? You are traveling in space and your suit, which you practically live in, doesn’t have a helmet and gloves??? And how about the pointy-stick weapon? Here it is, the future, and we devolved from guns back to pointed sticks? Sure, it's a melee weapon that can turn into a veritable menagerie of pointy melee weapons, but nothing that shoots or can be mundanely useful, like a rope or shield. Nothing, other than a pointed stick? Not even bows and arrows? It is the future, and you fight six-legged fear-chasing monsters with pointed sticks?
Why yes the monster does look like they stuck random legs on a giant penis.
This isn't a spoiler because they mention this in the, again, extraneous and unnecessary opening exposition dump, but they are fighting an alien race of creatures that are blind but can smell their fear. Which, yes, sounds dumb, but in the right hands, it could work. Their solution for this, in the future, at least a solid millennium from now: learn to have no fear. Well gee! Maybe if you didn't fight with terribly outdated weapons, it would be a bit easier to skip the “fear for your life” stage of a battle? 

But ok, it's the future and you're fighting monsters that smell fear. You’re telling me that humanity has invented shape-shifting weapons, liquid oxygen, organic ships and technology (I'm guessing, since it's never explained, but all the spaceship interiors look like Hawaiian resorts), spaceships with artificial gravity, anti-toxins for non-specific alien parasites, full-body virtual scanners, roll-up iPads, flying robot cameras, and ship-jumping and/or faster-than-light technology, and you can't think of any practical ways around this enemy and its ability to SMELL FEAR? REALLY? What about chemical pheromones that mask how you smell? Full body suits that don't let scents escape? (Again, did they just forget how to make helmets and gloves?) In a flashback, Kitai is hidden in a bubble terrarium and is assured the alien won't be able to smell his fear. Couldn’t you mass produce these? How about scent grenades that confuse the aliens? Chemicals injected that overwrite the fear response? Fancy smelling perfumes? I'm pretty sure there's a section at Macy's that can win this whole damn war.

And it's apparently a really big deal that this one guy learned how to not have fear. I feel like A LOT of guys in the military today would know something about that whole not-having-fear thing. Did we go through a big scaredy-cat age in the future? You can't have these problems in the future and then not explain why they're problems, especially not when we have solutions to them today.
"Projectiles? Ropes? Grappling
hooks? No just give me a bunch of
variations of pointed sticks.

Oh, I almost forgot the terrible, almost-but-not-quite Southern accents. Why? Seriously. Why? Because there's little-to-no reason why future people would all sound like they're from South Carolina. This is where After Earth sets itself apart from good sci-fi like Cloud Atlas. In Cloud Atlas, in their post-apocalyptic era, there are two distinct people: technology users who are highly learned and speak regularly, and tribe-like peoples who have a dialect with accents so thick it nearly turns into its own language with its own shorthand and terms for various things. That's how languages evolve. People are simple, they use simpler language. They describe an act with a set of words, then as the act gets used more, they use simpler or easier terms, it gets shorter, and it turns into a whole new thing that an outsider can barely recognize. Think of how slang in different times and eras is/was used. Think of how we use LOL. It went from "That's funny and I'm laughing at that" to "Ha ha ha!" to "Laughing Out Loud" to "lol". Shyamalan does not understand any of that, because the language used in After Earth is just today's language with a bad Southern accent, probably because it “sounded cool.” He doesn't do the research, and he doesn't put in the work. He just does things because. He needs to stay away from Sci-Fi and high fantasy. It's one of the reasons why I hated The Last Airbender, but there's no way I'm getting into that.

So, long-rant-short, this could have worked as a fantasy, maybe, but falls apart as Sci-Fi.

Anyways, wow I should probably talk about the rest of the movie, huh?

The whole father-son dynamic, with the father having to guide his son, and trusting him to be a soldier, while still trying to protect him; and the son learning how to do stuff on his own – I dig that. That is a cool idea, and it almost works. Almost. Jaden Smith and WIll Smith are not great. I think Will Smith is a great actor, but he also needs a good script and a good director to bring that out. After Earth, unfortunately, has neither. He's best when he's charismatic, goofy, and overly emotional, but here his character is the opposite. He has to be cold and rigid. And while he's ok, I can't help but think how a more serious actor could have brought it out better. Maybe Denzel Washington, or Terrence Howard, or even Jamie Foxx. I really liked Jaden Smith in the Karate Kid movie, so I think he's got some stuff in him, but he has a lot to take on here. There's a lot he has to transcribe with just his presence, and he didn't quite pull it off.

While I like the premise, the movie does very little with the story. Even the whole fear thing, which I still think is pretty dumb, could have been done so much better and with so much more. All that's behind it is that Kitai has to learn not to have fear and then he does the end. There could have been so many possibilities to go with that! We have already gone through the story of learning not to have fear in the intro! Do something else: a twist in the story, if you will. Maybe Cypher has been so focused on forgetting fear that he's locked away all other emotions, too, and now has to learn to talk to his kid, which I'm sure a lot of parents can relate to. Maybe the only way Kitai can eradicate his fear is if he stops caring about his dad, but then his dad fears his son's safety, so then Kitai has to save the first fearless man, his father, from his newfound fear.  
Think of how different a movie this would have been
if the alien monster was made to smell teenage hormones.
And they didn't do a damn thing with the planet being Earth even though the movie is called After Earth. It might as well have been another alien world for all the use they got out of it. Maybe Cypher is very adamant that Earth is dangerous, and that humanity’s time with it is over, but Kitai finds that Earth is worth saving. Maybe Kitai finds guns and wants to use them on the alien, but he has to learn why they now use pointed sticks. Think how amazing a message that would have been! It's not necessarily a bad story, but I can tell there is so much potential for a better story just lying beneath the surface here, and that is the worst feeling you can have about a movie.

The writing is not great, and a lot of the plot feels either random or "because the story demands it." Why can the creature only jump up a hole but 5 seconds later can climb out of it? Because the story demands it. And the practical visuals are at least interesting, but the CGI is bad. Some of the action is alright, but nothing stands out as memorable. The flight suit scene is cut halfway through, there's one good fight, and even with that cool-looking, shape-shifting, magic, pointed stick, he really only uses it once. Out of all the CGI aliens and animals, a couple look alright. None of them look amazing. The alien at least looks cool and gets in some good scares. Some of the shots are ok, and the music is generic to a fault.

Having said all of that, can I just say how delighted I am about a fairly progressive sci-fi movie? This is a movie with a pretty diverse cast, leaning towards the black/brown side, and with most of the screen time taken up by two black actors? For a sci-fi movie, even in the far flung future of 2013, that's a feat. Sad to say, but for most big budget sci-fi movies, it is. (COUGH COUGH OBLIVION COUGH COUGH STAR TREK COUGH) On the other hand, it's not great for women. There are barely any actresses, and a female relative is definitely stuffed into a fridge so to speak. So, definitely not that great towards women. Also, for all my hate on the pointed sticks, I have to admit this is one of the few future movies that doesn't glorify or sexualize guns, and that's pretty damn admirable. Good on that, After Earth.

After Earth is not the return of Shyamalan as an auteur, nor is it his worst film. It's a pretty good sci-fi movie with questionable future tech and an okay story.
  • THE GOOD: Things look cool, alright story, some okay action scenes, neat idea, has non-white main cast members, doesn't contribute to gun culture, father-son story, aliens look alright.
  • THE BAD: Things look cool for no reason, written by Shyamalan, the Smiths aren't great, future tech doesn't make sense, music is bad, CGI is bad, movie doesn't do much with fear or father-son dynamic or after Earth, pointed sticks don't make sense, weird accents for no reason, women in refrigerators, HIS NAME IS CYPHER RAIGE.
  • THE VERDICT: $$$ Y'know, I want this to be better and I simultaneously want to complain about it more and give it a worse score, but at the end of the day, it evens out. It's not that bad a movie, but it's not that great, either. Maybe see it, maybe don't, maybe wait. It depends how much you still like Shyamalan and how annoyed you get at badly done sci-fi. And how pissed you still might be for The Last Airbender.
  • MOVIES LIKE IT: Oblivion, The Last Airbender, Prometheus, The Karate Kid 
  • ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: There is this weird side-story involving Kitai and a giant eagle-hawk-thing that might be trying to kill him, or might be trying to protect him, and it's not really explained that well. It's really tragic and I like it, but it also doesn't serve the greater story at all. What does it say about Kitai or about the world he lives in or about Earth? How does it contribute to his lesson about learning to not be afraid? In other words, why is it here other than, "it looks cool"?

1 comment:

  1. Love your thoughts on this. Regarding the one-legged vet who didn't even get a prosthetic leg for his troubles - they can make him a nifty hover wheel-chair so couldn't they at least put a mini anti-grav pad at the end of his leg stump so he could hover-hobble? Duh