Friday, February 7, 2014

Film Friday: After Earth (2013)

After Earth came out in 2013 during the summer of bombs when a series of films with weak scripts and political agendas did their best to repel audiences. After Earth was one of these. But despite its weak script that does feel like a Scientology indoctrination film at times and some bizarre choices, this film was watchable. It didn’t suck.
After Earth starts with you the audience trying to figure out if Will Smith’s son is retarded: “Wow! Is that really how he talks?” I’m sure other things are happening, but that’s all you’ll notice. Within a few minutes, however, you realize that his dialect was intentional because Will Smith and some of the others speak the same way. Their speech pattern is best described as Foghorn Leghorn without the charm and minus about 40 IQ points. Apparently, the folks from Deliverance are the only ones who survive the robot holocaust.
Anyway, there are these monster things. And they are hunting humans because humans moved to their planet after we rich white Republicans destroyed the Earth with our factories and stuff. So humanity went multi-ethnic... minus the Asians who apparently all died of acceptable racism before this film takes place, and our little chocolate rainbow of inbreedery moved out into space to some alien world picked by these noble warriors, “the Power Rangers United Ranger Corps”, who are infallible... except that they picked this crappy monster planet and the fact they can’t really protect us from these monster thingies. But they are infallible.
The leader of the Rangers is Will Smith, who plays General Writer-Producer Cypher Raige (yeah, seriously). Smith is the baddest of the bad because he has learned to wipe out his fear. See, the monsters hunt us by sniffing our pheromones, which we let out when we are afraid. //chuckle chuckle Just the tiniest bit of fear can kill you. But if you can learn to never fear anything, then you can do what is called “ghosting,” which makes you invisible to these monster thingies. Then you can kill them easily with your pointy stick, which is the height of military technology.

As our story opens, poor Will Jr. is failing out of Ranger school. He’s good in the books, but really weak in the field. His father does not understand this because old Will Sr. is emotionally dead and probably blames (in a non-emotional way) Will Jr. for not saving Mrs. Will Sr. when a monster attacked the home. “Sigh My son is a dud.”

After Will Jr. is told he sucks, he and his father hop on a space flight to somewhere. No, it doesn’t matter where, because that’s not the point. In the cargo hold of the spaceship is one of these monsters. They are transporting it for the sake of the movie. Of course, the Indian cabbie pilot flies too close to an asteroid storm and they get whacked. To save the ship, they wait for Will Sr. to tell them to hit the “travel” button which sounds like space jump technology. A moment later, they are hit, then they jump, then they crash.

Surprise, you’re back on Earth, sucka!

Now, as an interesting aside, Earth seems to have been turned back into a paradise, though this goes unremarked in the film. It’s lush and beautiful and visually stunning. Real estate is dirt cheap too. The only catch is that there are some bugs and animals who are dangerous to humans (unlike now) and Will Jr. can’t breathe the air without sucking on a pacifier.
Once on the Earth, we are told that Will Sr. has a broken leg so he needs to send his wuss kid 100 km away to light off a beacon. Of course, the monster survived the crash too and it’s hungry for chicken boy, who spews pheromones like an Italian army in full retreat. Still, they have no choice, so Will Jr. heads on out.

Ok, everything you’ve read up to now is the essentially backstory and set up. This has taken about 10 minutes of the film. The next ninety minutes or so involve Will Jr. running 100 km before his air runs out and before the monster eats him. Will he light the beacon? Will he save Will Sr.? Will he overcome his humanity and make himself emotionally dead so he can kill the creature? That’s your movie.
As strange as this may sound, this film doth not suck. M. Night Shyamalan directed this and he’s pretty good with things like pacing and images. The story itself is uber-simple, but not offensive or stupid. It’s just a boy racing through the woods as he’s hunted by a monster and runs into all kinds of obstacles. At that level, I can’t really complain. The film was pretty and it was just exciting enough to be watchable. It wasn’t ever truly exciting or all that interesting, but it was watchable.

Beyond this, they tried to inject a very standard “boy must reconcile with his father” story, but that part was very, very weak. Not only are Will Smith Jr. and Sr. not really up to the task of an emotionally serious task like this, but there are some flaws which made this an impossible task. The problem is this: the film posits that the highest state of being is to be emotionally dead. So to survive, Will Jr. needs to get off his lazy, incompetent butt and learn to surrender his emotions. That’s going to make it really hard to tell an emotionally strong story if the goal of his character is to become cardboard. Even worse, the guy he’s playing off of is already cardboard. So that’s a problem.

Then it gets worse. To inject the father-son drama, the film tells us that Will Sr. needs to stop being so distant and so (non-emotionally) angry at his son. This is a cliché father-son storyline, but it doesn’t make any sense here. Are we to believe that being emotionally dead is a good thing or a bad thing? It seems to be a good thing for Jr. but a bad thing for Sr. We’re told this is the ultimate goal of humanity, but it obviously has ruined two lives. So what is it? Even worse, why doesn’t the film recognize this problem and resolve the conflict? Worse yet, neither Will Sr. nor Will Jr. is up to handling this paradox. Consequently, their relationship sputters and stalls and jumps in multiple directions at once. Moreover, a low-dialog film like this requires the actors to project their emotions and thoughts more so the audience can understand them, yet neither actor is very good at that, especially with both trying to play emotionless drones, and with neither actor even in the same location. Each of these choices really undercuts the storyline and makes it uninteresting.
Anyway, as with Oblivion, this film was better than you would expect given its 11% rating from the critics. Also like Oblivion, this feels like an adult science fiction story in many ways, for which I’m always thankful. But unlike Oblivion, this one isn’t. This is just a "chased by hillbillies monster" movie combined with a flat "father-son reconciliation" story. There’s really no science fiction to it except as the setting. Still, the end result was surprisingly watchable, though I wouldn’t call it interesting. Ultimately, I would say that if you watch it, it will hold your attention, but you won’t remember a thing about it the moment the credits start.


Kit said...

No Asians in the movie.

Now, in The Last Airbender that Shyamalan also directed the mostly Asian cast members were replaced with Indians and white people.

A pattern?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It's possible there was one somewhere in the background, but I didn't see one.

And to be clear, that's not the point to the movie. The movie is just the race to the beacon. You really only see other people in the beginning and the ending. But when you do, it's very "diverse" so long as you only like a limited form of diversity.

tryanmax said...

Apparently, the folks from Deliverance are the only ones who survive the robot holocaust.

Somehow I can buy that.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, You know, I'm being somewhat tongue in cheek, but I am serious about the speech patterns. It was very, very strange the way they were all talking. At first, it sounds like they've just cast an idiot with a strange accent that sounds like a cross between a fake southern accent and just simple stupidity -- all with wrong inflection. But then you realize that they're all talking like that, so I assume it's intentional.

And yeah, I can see the hillbillies surviving the robot holocaust.

Kit said...

So its "diverse" without actually being diverse?

tryanmax said...

Andrew, you're missing the point. This is Vulcan cinema. Emotional humans wouldn't understand. But heartless Republicans might. You RINO.

AndrewPrice said...

It's diverse in the sense that Hollywood does diversity -- light-skinned blacks, non-blonde whites and indeterminate dark-whites, but nothing else recognizable.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Vulcans don't do cinema. There is no logic in it.

shawn said...

"who spews pheremones like an Italian army in full retreat."- great line Andrew.

I haven't seen the movie thanks to all the poor reviews, but I might give it a chance now.

Anonymous said...

...after we rich white Republicans destroyed the Earth...

Come on. I know it's a joke but don't politicize a movie that has no politics in it! :-) (Having said that, am I the only one who didn't detect a Scientology subtext in this film?)

I pretty much agree with you here - not as bad as some people think, certainly not great, and quite watchable. Jaden Smith unfortunately brings the movie down with him. I thought Will Smith was fine but perhaps he could've been better with a different kid to play against.

Oh, and remember my pet peeve about obvious movie character names? Yeah, Cypher Raige would fit the bill. I don't care if it's sci-fi - that's like calling a depressed character Feare or something.

Tennessee Jed said...

in the crowded world of visual entertainment, just "being chased by a hillbilly monster" and "it doesn't suck" just don't seem to be reasons to invest a couple of hours in this one.

KRS said...

Okay, Andrew, let's summorize your review:

Whites kill the planet
Everybody kills the Asians
Robot Holocaust
Hillbillies - Happy Happy Happy Hillbillies (I assume)
Pointy Sticks

And that's just in the first ten minutes. The rest of the movie is a chase with an outside chance that the hero might get eaten (although this isn't Tarantino movie). Add to that the fact they've landed in paradise and they want to be rescued from it so they can go back to living with the monsters that eat them.

AND, it doesn't suck!

Now I wish I'd seen it in the theater.

Missed your calling, Andrew. You should be making movie trailers.

(On a serious note: great review - really fun!)

Anonymous said...

Whites kill the planet
Everybody kills the Asians
Robot Holocaust
Hillbillies - Happy Happy Happy Hillbillies (I assume)
Pointy Sticks

Aren't those all Roger Corman movies? :-)

(And I'm pretty sure we've all killed the planet in this movie - not just Whitey. This isn't Avatar!)

Anonymous said...

I'm never gonna see this one but thanks for the review.You make a great point - "a low dialogue movie requires the actors to project their emotions and thoughts more" - bravo! keep that in mind and go back and watch First Blood. I own it, and one snowed in day this winter I'm going to watch it and count how many lines of dialogue Stallone has, excluding the speech at the end. The reason that the character of John Rambo became so popular was that we empathized with him, and the reason we empathized with him was because we understood how he felt. The image we all have now of John Rambo is of the invincible super warrior but that's because of the sequels. In the original film Stallone portrayed fear,vulnerability and frustration with very little dialogue,just with his eyes and his body language. Imagine John Rambo,as portrayed in the first movie, in the hands of a lesser actor. It would have just been a chase movie with no character development.
The great ones make it look easy.
I will always genuflect to Shyamalan for blessing my life with The Sixth Sense and Signs, but damn. Just damn.

And "spewng pheremones like an Italian army in full retreat" is a classic line!
Or a french army even contemplating action. :)
Thanks for the review.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Shawn! I liked that line too. :)

In all honesty, I think the film is worth seeing once. Just don't expect much more than a kid running through a very pretty jungle.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Cypher Raige is a ridiculously stupid name. It's a fricken name that explains the point to his character!! That's horrible writing! It's like "Capt. Will Betrayou" for the secret villain. Blech.

I do think this is watchable. And I agree that Jaden brings this film down. He's just not compelling and he really has noticeably poor delivery with his lines. To give an example, he kept pronouncing "Four vials left, sir" as "Fuh vies lef, suh." And that was common throughout. I think though, that was intentional because they were all talking with strange speech patterns. In any event, a better kid would have lifted this movie considerably.

On the politics, the show made political points even if it didn't directly blame Republicans. It opened with an environmentalist doomsday fantasy about pollution destroying the earth and it has a multicultural agenda.

On the Scientology, that struck me as pretty obvious. There are points in the film where Smith explains ghosting and how to get there which feel exactly like indoctrination -- they aren't lines of dialog so much as speeches read from a dogma text.

As an aside, did you notice the similarities to The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think it is watchable, but I also think you miss anything if you skip it.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks KRS! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun writing it. :)

I like your breakdown. But I need to clarify that much of this is implied...

1. They never say "whites" (just "we") but "white/Republicans" can be implied from the "intellectual real estate" Hollywood has laid on this in the hundreds of films where honkey America is blamed for destroying the planet. Also, the multicultural casting makes a clear statement IMO.

2. They never mention the Asians. We have no idea where they went. They just aren't on screen anywhere. They've been left off the Ark apparently. And that's pretty common when Hollywood does multicultural -- multicultural in Hollywood does not include everyone.

3. Sadly, there was no robot holocaust. I'm just assuming that's what wiped out everyone who "don't speak like no idjit." Hence, modern society evolved from hillbillies.

4. The pointy sticks are real. That's the weapon they use to fight these things. I guess they couldn't figure out how to use a 50 cal. Interestingly, the monsters are killed fairly easily so I'm thinking a company of Marines could clear the monster planet.

And yeah, it doesn't suck. I was pretty surprised myself. But thinking about it, most "chased through jungle" films seem to turn out pretty decently. This one isn't nearly as good as Predator, but it's pretty and it does hold your attention.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, If they aren't, they should be Roger Corman films! :)

And yes, they never say whites. But this is something Hollywood does so constantly that it's hard not to read it as subtext. It's always the rich, white Republicans who destroy the planet. This film didn't say that, they just said, "we," but it fits with the continuing theme. Also, the multicultural statement can be added to the subtext. This isn't multicultural in the sense of "look, a melting pot," this is multicultural in the sense of "there's a new dominant race." That reeks to me of a political statement.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, You're welcome. :)

Yeah, I like M. Night a lot and I love Sixth Sense and Signs, but he's really lost his mojo and can't seem to get it back.

Totally agree about First Blood. Stallone makes that film because you can read everything he's not saying in his eyes, in his body language, and in the way he acts. Every grunt, groan or glare is meaningful.

That is a task Jaden Smith is not up to.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

You bring up an interesting point and I'm sure we've discussed it before. Sure Hollywood does it constantly, but shouldn't we at least try to judge movies on a case by case basis? Just because Directors A and B have an ax to grind doesn't mean Director C does.

And when it comes to story points, when is it PC, and when is it just an interesting idea worth exploring?

(Yeah, another can of worms here.) :-)

Kit said...

From what I saw of The Last Airbender movie*, it seems characters speaking in emotionally flat monotone voices is his new style.

*Tried watching it twice. But it was so boring I turned it off 10-15 minutes in.

AndrewPrice said...

And Scott, before you say I'm reading too much into the multicultural subtext, ask yourself these questions:

1. If the film were done with Arabs as the dominant group and say one Israeli in an inferior supporting role (like a typist), do you think that would be considered just an accident of casting or would it be seen as an anti-Israeli statement?

2. If we recast the film by swapping out Asians for all the blacks, would black groups be cool with that and say, "Hey, it's just a movie," or would they call it a "racist statement."

When you start playing with race in casting, it's always a statement.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

My quibble isn't so much about the racial stuff (that's Shyamalan's problem)... more so the "white Republican" thing which you're attributing to the film apparently only because other films have done that, hence my "case by case basis" remark.

You might as well say it's always raining in Blade Runner because of all those rich Republicans and their acid rain. :-)

Oddly, Unbreakable also features a line disparaging Asians - did Shyamalan's family get killed by Asians or something?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Good questions.

On point one, I tend to err in terms of taking each film according to its own merits. But in this case, there is a history and the opening statement feels "lazy," like it's relying on the intellectual real estate. In other words, this wasn't anything where they had something specific in mind: "the Earth was destroyed by pollution from the new nutroneum plants." This was just a generic "polluters destroyed the earth" statement. And non-specific statements like that feel like they are reaching out to the intellectual real estate Hollywood has established.

In terms of the history, M. Night did that stupid environmental porn film "The Happening." Then you add the multicultural point. All of this together starts to feel like more is intended than just a premise... it is a statement.

On when something is PC and when it's worth exploring, the problem is this -- they didn't explore anything. The PC point was the ultimate point of including it. Take the pollution bit. We're told that pollution destroyed the earth, yet the earth looks great and not a single character comments on this. If they had gone into this, then I could say, "yes, they're exploring an interesting idea." But they didn't, so all that was left was a PC enviro-doomsday statement. Basically, we're supposed to take away the idea that pollution will make the earth uninhabitable... even as it stupidly appears very habitable on film.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Maybe that's his new thing? Either way, it comes across as really bizarre.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I have no idea. Maybe he is anti-Asian?

I get what you're saying about the white Republican thing, but see my point above. This is something Hollywood beats into the ground and this film doesn't specifically say it, but it seems to fall in line.

Anonymous said...

You are right about intellectual real estate though. This is why oil companies make great villains - you don't need to explain anything!

I was talking about diversity the other day with a (Jewish) friend - she and I both agree that it's become a cliche to have, for example, a nerd character be Jewish (or at least have a Jewish/Polish-sounding name). Hence my comment in my Backdraft review about cocky WW2 characters named Kowalsky. More real estate.

BTW... not to go off-topic, but George Clooney's Monuments Men is released today... and the critics are mostly panning it! I think it may have to do with the fact that, according to one positive review I read, Clooney made a patriotic 50s-style WW2 movie (with a Great Escape-esque score)... and not some ironic, post-modern thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, "Diversity" has just become a way to shuffle the stereotypes.

On Clooney... As I have written many times, I truly am sick of the cynicism in our society and movie critics are some of the worst. They act like pained artists and they crap on anything that isn't filled with angst and cynicism. I've pretty much stopped listening to them because of it.

I don't know much about the tone of Clooney's film, but I intend to see it. I usually do like his films.

KRS said...

Usually I like movies like these, but I let this one go because I heard about the father-son relationship and I am sick of all the scriptwriters with daddy issues. I like stories where there is a strong relationship and it turns out to be the shield and sword of the father and son when the ordeal is thrown at them.

One of my favorite movies is Frequency (2000), with Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel. From IMDb:

"A rare atmospheric phenomenon allows a New York City firefighter to communicate with his son 30 years in the future via short-wave radio. The son uses this opportunity to warn the father of his impending death in a warehouse fire, and manages to save his life. However, what he does not realize is that changing history has triggered a new set of tragic events, including the murder of his mother. The two men must now work together, 30 years apart, to find the murderer before he strikes so that they can change history--again."

It's a tight, desperate little story. The thing I like about it is that Quaid and Caviezel play father and son perfectly. I completely believed it. Everything is thrown at them and they fight together - 30 years apart - and with courage. You see their efforts impacting the changing present. In the end, they do an excellent job with closing the time loop.

Time travel movies are problemmatic - and even this time-talking movie has a few issues - but the father-son dynamic distracts you from all that during the movie.

Maybe it's because I had a great dad or because I've got a great son - yeah, it probably is those things - but I like me a good father-son yarn and have lost patience for the modern stereotypical movie relationships where the characters have more issues than TV guide. (I stole that from somewhere.)

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I feel your pain. Hollywood does seem to think that there are no good fathers. In fact, stories with strong father-son relations are very rare. I don't know if it's just because that's easy drama or if Hollywood really is full of messed up people. Probably a little of both.

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, I had to turn on the word verification again. I'll turn it off in a couple days, but we're getting over a hundred spam comments an hour right now.

Kit said...

Interestingly, one of the best movie dads in recent years was Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness.
Trailer: LINK

Kit said...

In fact, it was a Will Smith/Jaden Smith movie.

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