“Man of Steel” – Kneel before Zod!

Now that’s a summer movie I’ve been waiting for! In reality I could end the review right now, because I have just shown my hand and, quite honestly, no amount of words will convey how awesome “Man of Steel” really is. Nonetheless, I think I’d like to say a little bit more on the subject.

Following yesterday’s screening of the long-awaited reboot of the Superman franchise I was so pumped I had serious difficulties focusing my thoughts enough to write the review and I spent a better part of the evening listening to the excerpts from the Hans Zimmer’s score to “Man of Steel” (which is epic, by the way, and come Monday there is no force in the universe that could stop me from buying the CD) wearing my Superman T-Shirt and feeling awesome and invincible. And before I get to the nitty gritty, I just wanted to say that this is what a superhero film is supposed to do to you; it ought to be the definition of ‘awesome’, epic and unforgettable. Clearly, Shane Black could learn a thing or two from Zack Snyder, because “Man of Steel” is everything that “Iron Man 3” isn’t. While it certainly has its flaws, which I’ll discuss later on, the film delivers on almost all fronts by being respectful to the iconic stature of Superman in pop-culture and all the while elevating his story to the proper modern standard.

The origin stories in superhero universes are almost invariably awkward – just as adolescence is in real life, I presume. In them one needs to provide enough background information for the story to actually count as an origin, but it needs to be done with some class so that it’s not heavy-handed. We all know how easy it is to desensitize the viewer by overloading him with data (“Oblivion” and “After Earth”, I’m looking at you, guys) and going for a sloppy brush-over job is not going to cut it any longer; it’s not the 70’s any more and we have the technical capabilities to give Kal-El a proper background story, without the cheap crystals, sheets and bathrobes. Moreover, “Man of Steel” – whilst clunky in the beginning in delivering the actual background – did give Superman solid foundation in his universe with very vivid interpretation of his home planet Krypton and the plot that led him to Earth.

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In that spirit – for those who are unaware – it all begins on a distant planet Krypton. Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) is born and it is a special affair. I shan’t reveal why that is, because by some it might be seen as a minor twist in the movie, but the newly born Kal-El needs to be protected at all cost. More so because his father – being an important figure in the governing structures – discovers that Krypton has become unstable and is going to explode, thus claiming lives of its inhabitants. No-one, including the ruling council, believes Jor-El’s gruesome revelations, apart from General Zod (Michael Shannon) who stages a coup d’etat to ensure the planet’s survival. Jor-El doesn’t trust the young and ruthless general and refuses to join him. Despite all that, Zod with his insurgents carry on what they started, but Jor-El gets killed in the process. He does, however, ensure that his son is sent off in a capsule headed specifically to Earth. The revolution gets thwarted in the end, Zod and his henchmen banished, and Krypton – according to Jor-El’s predictions – meets its untimely demise.

When Kal-El lands on Earth (somewhere in Kansas) he is found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who adopt him as their son and name him Clark. As the boy grows up, his other-worldly powers start to surface and make Clark into a social outcast. After years of living in solitude, drifting through the world and living under various aliases, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) gets a shot at understanding his past, his powers and his reason to exist. He tags along as a technician on an expedition where a young and ambitious reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a possibly alien artefact frozen in polar ice for millennia, which will turn out vital for Kal-El to become what he needs to become. And little does he know, that once banished General Zod, now brutally scarred, betrayed and hungry for retribution has found Kal-El’s refuge and will stop at nothing in order to claim his revenge.

This is why I think origins stories are difficult to get right: it takes 350 words to summarize 25-30 minutes of a film and I think I held myself back a little with the details and intricacies of the story. I would certainly understand that to some people the first act of “Man of Steel” feels a bit out of tune and needs a bit of time to start rolling, and by the time the final act is upon us, it’s gleefully steam-rolling through the screen in a sensory overload of epic proportions. However, I found the first act quite pleasing, as the very details of Clark’s coming of age are delivered through flashbacks and dreams instead of a blatant biopic-like borefest. While this approach feels fragmented and slows down the pace, it never really hurts the story as a whole, because meanwhile we get to see how Clark slowly becomes Superman by gradually learning to understand and love the people of Earth. I personally loved, how Zack Snyder and Dave Goyer chose to deliver Superman’s mission. While Kal-El is far away from being dark and edgy, he is no longer the clumsy Clark Kent, as portrayed by the late Christopher Reeve – Henry Cavill’s Superman is no mere superhero… He is not your friendly boy scout, for he is a messiah. By the way, when Clark finally finds his roots, hones his powers and comes to terms with his mission in life, he is 33 years of age – just like Jesus… And his character is led more or less in a messianic way, with selfless choices and sacrifices he is willing to make.

But that is not the best part… The best part is that “Man of Steel” finally delivers a Superman that we needed. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate Chris Reeve’s classic Superman, but the forty years that stands between us make him look… cute and adorable… “Man of Steel” gives us a Superman that – no questions asked – is faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Henry Cavill’s Superman is the supersonic indestructible god it ought to have been for decades now. Thanks to technical advances in special effects, Superman is no longer a levitating guy in a red cape – he is a force of nature and any sequence with Kal-El in it is quite simply jaw-dropping. Indubitably, “Man of Steel” goes to ridiculous lengths to show us how gods would fight each other. Everything about this film is ultra-fast, massive, epic and packed with adrenaline. Whilst the first act is quite slow, dreamy, or even clunky, the remainder of the film compensates for it in a way you have never seen before.

On top of all that – the action and epic sequences – we can also find some solid acting in “Man of Steel”. Henry Cavill (first non-American to portray Superman) does a fantastic job at grounding Kal-El in the world he is in, so that it feels more natural to see him emerge as a god who would give his life to save his compatriots. While Cavill’s demeanour certainly fits the expectations, he surely doesn’t feel like a run-of –the-mill Chris Reeve lookalike, but breathes new life into Kal-El’s character and contributes vastly to the impact of “Man of Steel”. Amy Adams as Lois Lane very nicely adds to the picture. I didn’t seem to understand what her game really was for a while, because Lois Lane in “Man of Steel” is not just a damsel in distress any more (well, she is once or twice), but I think she is more of an embodiment of everything Kal-El is fighting for.

And the villain… Having a believable and scary villain in a movie is almost as important as getting your protagonist right. Michael Shannon as general Zod does a fine job creating a frightening and ultimately dangerous counter-balance to Kal-El. If it hadn’t been for certain one-liners and the initial insurgence plot-line, I would have thought Shannon’s Zod was close to the level of Ledger’s Joker, but he clearly had to grow into the boots he wore on the screen. While the older scary Zod is a fine villain and I have nothing against him, the younger Zod who revolted against Jor-El was quite artificial and laughable (almost like Commodus in “Gladiator”) and I couldn’t find him scary or threatening at all. On the other hand, that might have been the plan all along as Zod’s character seems to grow scarier in time, so that by the time we hit the climax, he’s got everything he needs. A late-blooming villain, but still…

In summary, “Man of Steel” has become my personal favourite Superman movie and it definitely is the biggest summer film for me. Well, until “Pacific Rim” is out, but that we shall see… Anyway, it is an all-round powerful sci-fi that recognises Superman’s mythos and is not afraid to bring something new to the table. The special effects are delicious and perfectly crafted and one can clearly notice someone has been taking notes from J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” with the lens flares, shooting against the light and super-zooming. Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon gave bang-on performances and only Russell Crowe looked to me as if he didn’t belong there quite as much. All this was covered with a thick layer of icing in a form of a powerful and truly epic score by Hans Zimmer, who has managed to slip in some uplifting crescendos in between the lines, so that the overall messianic feel of Superman’s mission was all the more elevated in the end.

By know I realized this article has become too long to be ended with finesse, so I shall say only this: “Man of Steel” turned out to be not only a great summer movie, not only a great Superman movie, but a very good movie in general. In fact, the film was so good that – contrary to what I normally say – I can’t wait to see the sequel…

 

 

“After Earth” – M. Night Shyamalan’s last ditch effort

Summer turns out not to be the most friendly time of the year – especially when you are a film. The competition is fierce and all kinds of high-budget productions roam the screens in search for box office revenue. Therefore, if you are not a superhero flick or a high-profile Sci-Fi (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), you’re bound to be fighting an uphill battle to break even. The struggle is even harder if your director seems to be cursed. Therefore, I think ‘mixed feelings’ is the most polite way I could describe my state of mind when I was about to watch “After Earth” this afternoon.

Normally, if somebody told me that a name like Will Smith was just attached to the upcoming summer Sci-Fi flick, I’d be in all kinds of heaven. Let’s face it – his name is almost a brand at this point with titles like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “I, Robot”, “MiB” virtually guaranteeing high octane entertainment and phenomenal box office turnover. Normally… but “After Earth” was not supposed to be normal, not by a long shot… Because this film was being created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself – and once you mention his name in public, everybody starts staring at you, as if you just farted in a church or something. I don’t intend to digress too much here, because I already have it planned for a different occasion, but one thing was clear the minute I learned Shyamalan was helming this upcoming Sci-Fi film with Will Smith in it – it was going to be something else entirely. And I wasn’t far off in the end, but not the way I anticipated.

There are a bunch of little things that make up the bulk of “After Earth”, but the general concept can be summarized in the following way: at some point in the future, the mankind has finally succeeded in destroying the planet. Therefore, humans had to evacuate Earth and move their civilization somewhere else – to a planet called Nova Prime, which is of course capable of supporting life. In order to organize the move and later to protect the people from various threats, an organisation called The Ranger Corps was brought to life where the finest warriors could play their part in keeping the mankind safe.

Fast forward one thousand years; Nova Prime settlements have been troubled by an alien race that uses monsters that sense fear to hunt down humans, and only thanks to General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) the Rangers were able to turn the tide of the war. It turns out that Cypher learned how to dismiss fear entirely thus making himself completely invisible to Ursas (the fear-sensing monsters). Once he started teaching other rangers how to master his skill, everything was more or less fine again and Cypher returned home a hero.

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Now, back at home his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying desperately to become a ranger himself in order to prove his worth to the very distant father – and he fails, not because he lacks skill, but he has problems following orders and keeping in line. Understandably, Cypher being the military-type strict type of father is utterly disappointed in his son and the gap between the two keeps widening. Only because Kitai’s mom convinces Cypher to cut the kid some slack, he decides to take him on what is supposed to be his last mission before retiring – a perfect opportunity for the two to have some time to bond. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan and mid-voyage their spaceship gets badly damaged by an asteroid and crashes on Earth (quite conveniently; it is somehow explained in the dialogue, but I can’t recall the details now). The only problem is that Earth after a thousand years without humans is a dangerous place to live in – completely taken over by blood-thirsty animals that look at people the way people look at bacon.

It then turns out that Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash (with Cypher being badly injured) and the only way for them to contact their compatriots is to find a distress beacon that crashed somewhere else – a perfect opportunity for young Kitai to prove to his father once and for all that he could be a Ranger. In order to achieve that, however, Kitai will have to face all kinds of deadly animals, rapidly changing weather and an Ursa that had their ship had carried before it crashed.

Now that I have seen this film I can honestly say that M. Night Shyamalan felt a bit out of his depth developing a high-concept science fiction film and, as a result, “After Earth” is a very chaotic and uneven experience. Note here that I am specifically trying to use neutral wording in order to avoid jumping on the hate train. I realize it would have been much easier for me to go on a rant here and join the crowd, but I feel it would be unfair on my part, because – all things considered – I quite liked the film with all its flaws and shortcomings. Correction: not so much liked it, but I didn’t dislike it, if that makes any sense.

I believe it is only logical to start with the good bits. First of all, I think the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith will remain one of the strongest points of the film in general. For one thing, they naturally have some good chemistry going and most of the scenes with both of them in the room have this weird tension – in a good way. However, we don’t get to see those too much in the film, as the bulk of “After Earth” is simply Jaden running around alone in the jungle with his father watching his every step from the safety of the wreckage. Jaden on his own acts nowhere near as good as when he is with his dad and no amount of Will Smith’s solid acting could possibly make up for that fact.

The contraptions used by the characters are also nice additions to the film. From the biologically inspired design of the spaceship with its bone-like skeleton, squishy buttons and tissue-like membranes for doors, through the mutating suit worn by Kitai, all the way up to the shape-shifting Ranger weapon – all the props in the film are designed very interestingly. Also, the CG modelling of the Ursa was quite clever, although the concept alone of a creature that finds its prey by tracking its fear was a tad underdeveloped.

 

Well, that’s all, folks… I like the premise of the film as well and I secretly hoped it would trump the ghastly “Oblivion”, but “After Earth” didn’t quite deliver. While the concept alone was more or less OK and maybe I could buy it, in the end the film offered a bit too much bulls**t to swallow in one go. I really dug the political commentary of how the planet will force us out and make sure we don’t come back, but I feel the script (co-written by Shyamalan again) would have been better if it was developed by someone experienced in designing universes from the foundations up, so that it would be actually believable and not full of gaping holes. Even though most of Shyamalan’s films involve supernatural elements, he clearly is not cut out for a job of that calibre. As much as I like the guy and understand where he’s coming from, “After Earth” ended up smothering him completely. When it comes to twists and turns and putting the characters in peril, that’s all fine and, even though it is rather expected for the characters to come out alive, he had me sitting at the edge of my seat quite a few times.

Nonetheless, a good sci-fi needs a bit more than that. While it was perfectly OK for “The Sixth Sense” to concentrate on only two characters and more importantly on fooling the viewers, “After Earth” needed a completely different approach – one that it never got. It almost looked, as though Shyamalan was forced to direct it without being able to think it through, because neither the character dynamic is established well enough to drive the film, nor the sci-fi aspect is compelling enough to be believable. A good sci-fi either requires a fully established mythos that breathes life into the world, or it needs to be completely cut off and self-contained – with no middle ground. The middle ground is where the mediocre sci-fi films go to die. Of course, it is more than welcome to expand on the cut-off variation and introduce the world in sequels or in lateral plot points, but unfortunately “After Earth” cannot be successfully assigned to any of these categories. In the end, Shyamalan tried to cook two dishes at once and he burned them both.

And I haven’t even touched on the leaps in logic and poor understanding of science that served as foundation for the entire universe in the film. I think “After Earth” would have benefited from a bit more science and less fiction. Maybe it takes a mere thousand years for the earth to go completely green again with oxygen levels being weirdly too low for humans to breath comfortably! Photosynthesis much? Also, how can anything evolve to kill humans if the humans are not around any more? It’s impossible by definition and a thousand years is nowhere near enough for anything to evolve into anything else. Luckily, the animals in the movie look mostly normal… Clearly, nobody over there knew how to tackle Sci-Fi properly. Since we live in the 21st century, we require our Sci-Fi to be properly done and fancy costumes and spaceships don’t cut it any longer.

I dare say that “After Earth” was most probably an ‘all or nothing’ move from M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the Smith family who produced the picture kept pushing the studio to film their project and Shyamalan’s name was attached to it, because no-one else would do it… I don’t know, but the entire thing smells fishy to me. I mean, it is not even a full-blown Shyamalan movie, but it’s truncated surrogate and I can only explain it by thinking that the producers had more to say about what goes in the movie than the director would have liked. Therefore, I think it’s unfair to flog poor Shyamalan any longer, because it might not have been his fault entirely for what “After Earth” ended up being. Love it or hate it, but this guy has his style of story-telling and in here I could barely see it, as if somebody explicitly told him not to do what he knows best…

In short, “After Earth” looks like a collection of clichés and well-worn ideas slapped together for the benefit of Will Smith and his son, dressed in poorly engineered universe and thrown into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan for him to make something coherent of it. A good artist can make music using anything for an instrument, but it won’t be a symphony… Don’t get me wrong, there are some good moments in the film and once the ball is rolling, the story develops some suspense (and this is what Shyamalan really knows how to do), but Sci-Fi needs more than that. Still, it was better than “Oblivion”…