“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”…

“Star Trek Into Darkness” – it boldly went…

Note: The following review is kept spoiler-free. I have no interest in ruining anyone’s experience with this movie, so feel free to read along.

This morning I made a bet against myself, which stated that if I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” later today, I would make an effort and watch every single “Star Trek” film and all the TV shows. Yes, I admit I haven’t been the nerdiest of nerds so far and I somehow managed to survive until this day having only seen an odd episode of The Next Generation and maybe Voyager, back when it was on TV and there was nothing more interesting to see. Strangely enough, I have always been drawn more towards other types of Sci-Fi with the likes of “Star Wars” at my side.

Well, I think now would be the time to get acquainted with William Shatner and the gang, because I thoroughly enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness”. In fairness, ‘enjoyed’ is a bit of an understatement, as I can honestly say that it’s the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen this year – hands down; and quite frankly it is one of the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen in recent memory. On top of all that, it being a sequel (and I think I’ve made myself clear on where I stand on sequels) makes it look even better, with the bar set a couple of notches higher than usual.

It is a very rare occurrence when a sequel surpasses the original and – make no mistake – “Star Trek Into Darkness” does not fall into that category… but it’s damn close, I have to say. If anything, people like Shane Black or Michael Bay should actually ring up J.J. Abrams and request some lessons on how to make a sequel properly, so that it doesn’t suck. My point is that if a given film deserves a sequel, than it needs to be to its original what “Star Trek Into Darkness” is to “Star Trek” (2009).

Even though it is not crucial, the knowledge of what happened in the previous “Star Trek” is highly recommended in order to feel comfortable. While there are plot-points that specifically address some events from the original, they are mostly of minor nature and refer to character development. Anyway, we are introduced to the crew of USS Enterprise a couple of years after the events of the previous film. Of course, we still operate under the assumption that the previous “Star Trek” formed an alternate timeline to what all the Trekkies consider ‘canon’, therefore it is only logical to dismiss any butt-hurt comments on the discrepancies between the old Star Trek and this one as stupid and out of place.

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Right, so we’re back with Captain Kirk and the gang who keep on going boldly where no man has gone before as they survey other species, observe, learn and stuff. Gut-feeling Kirk (Chris Pine) and cold-and-rational Spock (Zachary Quinto) have managed to develop a one-of-a-kind relationship that involves a lot of snappy comebacks and situation humor based on the fundamental differences between them. However, something goes wrong during the mission and as a result the crew gets disbanded, Kirk gets sent back to the Academy and the rest of the gang gets reassigned to other starships. Meanwhile over in England, a mysteriously looking fellow (Benedict Cumberbatch) pulls off a terrorist attack of massive proportions. The Starfleet brass quickly identifies the culprit as one of their own, a rogue agent called John Harrison, whose agenda is not exactly understood, but one thing remains clear – he’s one dangerous puppy. A series of events (that I shall not disclose) leads the Federation to reinstate Kirk and to send him on a hunt to the far reaches of the galaxy with a mission to find and bring Harrison down for his crimes. And it’s no easy task as he seems to be hiding on Kronos – the Klingon home world, and any misstep by our brave protagonists might extend the already tense relationships between the Federation and the Klingon Empire into an all-out war.

As you might have already noticed, I’m no Trekkie (at least for now, but I can’t promise anything), but what I can say is that I can’t help but admire how brilliantly Abrams handled this film; I’d even go as far as to say that I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” so much because I have little knowledge of the classical Treks. The film is packed with action delivered at a steady pace with the pathos and epic scenes dosed rationally. In fact, it’s the story and the characters that make up for the bulk of awesomeness of this film, because most of the action takes place in confined spaces. There are, of course, some epic sceneries and sequences of catastrophic proportions, but they somehow fail to overshadow what is the most important in this film – the characters of Kirk, Spock and Harrison, and the game they play.

 

Speaking of John Harrison, Benedict Cumberbatch has done a splendid job in creating a real flesh-and-blood villain that a viewer can have an emotional response to. His character is seriously malevolent, scary, vindictive and unpredictable. Plus, his character is responsible for most (if not all) of the story’s dynamic qualities, as his actions trigger very important changes that protagonists will undergo, and this ultimately stands behind the film as its biggest asset. It only goes to show that you can throw away millions of dollars on CGI effects, but the story is what will make the film float or sink. Here we seem to be having a damn near perfect storm of both, with exquisite CGI, action and solid important characters.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is very much a sequel well done; still a sequel and very much an Abrams’ movie with the characteristic photography, lens flares, dynamic cutting and bold twists. J.J. Abrams clearly knows how to handle a universe of that size and still create something gripping and enjoyable. Additionally, this film does not fall into the trap of ‘bigger, louder and more explosions’ and does its job as a proper expansion on the story-line  characters and the general universe. Sure, there’s action and suspense and the entire bang required of a modern-day big label sci-fi, but “Star Trek Into Darkness” has much more to offer than only that. What I’m about to say might be considered heresy in some circles, but from the point of view of character development, story progression and the overall tone of the film, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Trek universe. The story sets many important things in motion, the characters undergo massive and very important changes that would define the tone of the next installment  some potential momentum is generated, and the atmosphere as a whole is far more dark and ominous than the original “Star Trek”. I can’t say more at the time in the interest of not spoiling anything.

In summary, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a very good movie on its own and a fantastic addition to the vast Trek universe. The film pays due homage to the classics with the signature lines now part of the wider pop-culture that would make a nerd squeal, and it sports a fair share of laughs, however, not even once does it cross the line. The movie retains its independent style that looks more ‘starwarsy’ than ‘startrekky’, but it works only to the benefit of the film as a whole. The rapid action, witty humor and gorgeous effects are in perfect balance with engaging story, seriously sinister villains and their actions. It truly is a star trek into darkness.

The Sunday Rant

Right, so I thought I could use some venting. The years of indentured servitude one has to go through in order to become a scientist, all the while biting his tongue and pickling his emotions, have taught me that keeping things in can be at least referred to as unhealthy. So, as one might probably realize by now, I tend to rant. A lot. I like to think it’s therapeutic, but other than that I don’t really know.

Last week ended up being really interesting. I spent God knows how long waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with the greatest (so far) stink-bomb of the year – “Iron Man 3”, because I really wanted to see how it is received globally. It would seem that here in Europe we’re mostly good guys and instances of brutally spoiling this film for our fellow movie-goers across the pond were rather scarce; if you don’t count Youtube – that place is just full of butt-holes, but who am I to talk… I sincerely hoped “Iron Man 3” would bomb, but quite expectedly people loved it. The critics write sonnets about how fantastic it was and the box office revenue reflects the popular (sigh!) vote; and that scares me.

I mean, I can understand that people don’t want to step on anyone’s toes with this one, because the great Shane Black wrote the script for this piece of crap, but let’s face it: for the good of everyone around there should be no sanctity when it comes to art or entertainment. If Spielberg makes a s**t film – people should know, but it turns out that RDJ only needs flutter his eyelashes for everybody to fall hopelessly in love with Iron Man… Shame… And to think someone who brought us “Lethal Weapon” or “The Last Boy Scout” could contribute to this…

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who saw that (here’s a video rant from Peter Rallis), but still countless masses made Marvel and Disney think they’ve done it right, because the only thing that matters in here is money. They’ll make a lot of it with this one and I’ll bet you money right here and now that the PG-13 spirit of “Iron Man 3” will make its way to the next “Thor”, “Captain America” or the next “Avengers”. Who knows, maybe they all will feature little boys, Christmas themes and meaningless non-violent substitute for action. It’s not OK. If you want to see a good comic book movie – go and watch “The Crow” (I re-watched it last Sunday to wash the Iron Man off my brain). Actually, do it before they remake it in PG-13, because they are remaking it. Since R-rated movies are frowned upon, the teenagers moan and groan and people lose money, I’m afraid the remake might not be exactly dark.

Now, I could even try and come to terms with the superhero genre replacing the good old-fashioned action cinema, but if this is the way we’re headed – count me out. Now I’m literally dreading the release of “Thor 2”, “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel”, because what if they suck as badly as “Iron Man 3” did? And I need my action films to feel normal. I was raised with them and can’t imagine the world without them…

And in that spirit, and following the raging disappointment Iron Man had caused, I caught up with two films that had slipped through my fingers: “Jack Reacher” and “End of Watch”. Now, I really appreciate the effort, because lately it is rather difficult to see something relatively original leave Hollywood. Well, maybe not exactly, because “Jack Reacher” was based on a novel if I remember correctly, but then again adapting literature is nowhere near as bad as plastering numbers on films or re-heating old noodles are. I desperately tried to like it and as a result I ended up even more frustrated with it than I originally was. Somebody needs to tell Tom Cruise it is time to go. I appreciate “Rain Man, “Jerry Maguire” or “Vanilla Sky”, but enough is enough. Tom just can’t create a believable character for crime/action film any more. It’s all Ethan Hunt over and over again and the attempted noir atmosphere just doesn’t sit very well with him. Between this, the last “Mission Impossible” and “Oblivion”, I think I’ve had enough of Tom Cruise in action films.

“End of Watch” on the other hand… Now that was something else. It was brutal, violent, gripping, maybe a bit heavy-handed with all the flag-waving and police self-apotheosis, but at least it stayed true to the values of action/crime cinema. Maybe the found-footage thing was a bit sketchy, but hey… Everybody vlogs now, so why not the Mexican gangs… So, just because I can swallow a fair bit of pathos before I get sick, I wasn’t bothered by the ‘serve-and-protect’ nonsense. The dialogues were nice, Jake Gyllenhaal was awesome, and most of all when bullets flew, people got hurt. So that’s a plus, because I hate when movies show battles or gunfights and everyone’s OK (which is exactly what I saw in “Iron Man 3”, and no – I do not intend to stop bashing it, it deserves it). Plus, the entirety of the film takes place in a car or in its direct surroundings, so clearly no-one needs to blow up oil rigs or destroy CG-made cities to keep the adrenaline up.

In fact, even “Crimson Tide” (that I happened to re-watch this week as well) proves that you can put your characters in a can and use no effects whatsoever in a film, for it to be gripping. Flag-wavy, but still gripping… But then, Denzel Washington sort of drives the movie on its own, which is yet another piece of evidence that we need character-driven action films and not this plastic colorful flashy bulls**t.

Speaking of plastic colorful flashy crap, Lovefilm sent me “Skyline” this week and I don’t really want to talk about it. I had it on my rental list for ages, because why the hell not and now I got it. What a pile of crap that was… It should be shown to people in film schools as a reminder that special effects are not enough and special effects guys rarely make good directors. Notable exceptions of the like of James Cameron can only prove the theory as a whole, because no theory is complete without exceptions. I shouldn’t even speak about “Skyline” any longer, because it might be mistaken for a review, but I’ll say only this: even though it tried to look like good modern sci-fi with all the bling what-not, but the appalling story and wooden acting can make any good film look mediocre… And a mediocre film look terrible… And a terrible film unwatchable… Therefore, just to make sure I still like Sci-fi I quickly re-watched “Sunshine” and “War of the Worlds” (with the latter additionally easing my Tom Cruise pain, but Spielberg can actually direct actors so that they look convincing, so I don’t know) and everyone was happy again.

Still, when was the last time I watched some genuinely good Sci-fi? As much as I’d like to say “Prometheus”, I couldn’t live with myself for doing that. All the nonsense that went on in that movie has most probably stretched the whole thing into a trilogy, which Ridley Scott will never finish (because he won’t have a clue, how to make it look kosher again) and hence “Prometheus” should be promptly disqualified. But anyway… Good Sci-fi… Maybe “Battle LA” could qualify even with the tonne of pathos it carried, but I think the last time I was literally blown away by a Sci-Fi film was the time I saw “District 9” – four years ago!

But there is a silver lining to that, because Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” hits theaters this summer, so at least I’ll have something to look forward to. And I can try to feel better about seeing “Star Trek” next weekend – hopefully it won’t suck.

Meanwhile, the Sunday rant slowly crept onto Monday territory and I think I can stop now. Maybe next week I’ll do something similar and I’ll see where it gets me.

Rant over.