Sunday, December 29, 2013

Famous Flops: After Earth

This is the final installment of my 2013 series Famous Flops, in which I have been watching one known turkey per month and writing about it.

The trick when assessing the quality of an M. Night Shyamalan movie is not to hate on it just because it's M. Night Shyamalan. Unfortunately, the man has reached a point in his career where it's almost impossible to go into one of his movies with an open mind. You tend to jump on any little thing that strikes you as ridiculous, when you'd give the benefit of the doubt to many other films.

So I need to be honest and say that After Earth is a bit boring and bland, more than it is outright wrongheaded. In fact, Mr. Shyamalan can be said to be treading water, creatively, as far as I'm concerned. Despite some laugh-out-loud moments in its first half, I actually felt that the critically reviled The Last Airbender had some value in it. After Earth may have about the same amount of value. Which is to say, not a lot, but some.

Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: Jaden Smith. (I don't know why he's the elephant in the room. Forget I said that.) He's not really a good actor. The temptation is to call him a chip off the old block, but he's really not. He's okay. I was most convinced by him in The Pursuit of Happyness, when he was just a little kid, then not at all in The Day the Earth Stood Still. I haven't seen The Karate Kid, or any other movies he's made. He doesn't bring it here. He tries, and it's a really sweet kind of trying, but he just doesn't bring it. And the movie relies on his acting chops quite a bit. 

You see, he's sent off to find a rescue beacon that's in the other half of the ship his father and he crashed in, some 100 kilometers off on a planet called Earth, where humans used to live. They've long since vacated, as the planet (beautiful looking though it still is) has become toxic to human life. In fact, Smith Jr. needs special breathing capsules to help him breathe, and there's a question whether he'll make it the full 100 kilometers on the few remaining breathing capsules he has, let alone get back to the other half of the ship's wreckage, where his father (Smith Sr.) is in really bad shape with two broken legs.

In every Shyamalan movie you're looking for the high concept hook that attracted him to the project, and here it's more of a backdrop: Humans aren't safe in the other places they live, either. There they are being picked off by ferocious aliens who can't see them, but can track where they are by smelling their fear. The only way to beat them is to cultivate an absolute mastery over your fear, which is what Smith Sr. has done -- at this point you can walk right up next to them and slit their throats. This makes Smith Sr. an expert in the act of what's called "ghosting," and his son a trainee.

I do like that concept, but it's really not used in an interesting enough way. In fact, much of the movie is spent on set pieces where Smith Jr. has to face a certain obstacle between himself and the rescue beacon on Earth -- few if any of which involve the whole "mastery of fear" theme. I couldn't help but think of Shyamalan's The Happening during some of these scenes, because that movie involved the deadly threat embodied in ... trees. The earth is fighting back in a similar way here, but at least most of the threats are a little less inert, and ridiculous, than they were in that film.

That's the problem with where we find Shyamalan in his career right now. He seems to have gotten over the speed bump of really ridiculous fare, which I would argue started with The Village and carried on through Lady in the Water and The Happening. The first half of The Last Airbender is pretty ridiculous, but then it gets a bit better, and I would argue that this is where we find him with After Earth: no longer ridiculous, just boring. Which might be worse.

One aspect of his craft that's definitely still suffering is his direction of actors, which could be part of the explanation for Jaden Smith's less-than-stellar performance. Shyamalan and Will Smith have made the curious decision to excise any of the cheekiness and jovial spirit of a typical Will Smith character, leaving him totally humorless and almost robotic. While I wouldn't necessarily want a reprise of Smith saying "Welcome to Earth" from Independence Day -- though it would be thematically appropriate in this film -- I do think that they have managed to eradicate one of the main reasons people want to see Will Smith in a movie. A sci fi summer release wants the movie star Will Smith, not the actor Will Smith.

The film looks decent and is made competently enough. It's just sluggish and unremarkable.

Which brings us to the rather unremarkable ending of a rather unremarkable series. That's okay. Maybe this series about flops was destined to be something of a flop itself.

Up next: Twenty fourteen will bring us a new series that's appropriate to where I now live. That's the only tease I'll give you for now, with more to follow in January.

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