After Earth

June 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“Danger can be very real. Fear is a choice.” That’s a line from Cypher Raige in “After Earth”, a film that is so very basic and simple in its storytelling, it was refreshing to see a science fiction film that really understood the medium. The film takes place in the future, of course, and Earth is no longer inhabitable. Instead, there are human colonies set up on another planet in the solar system. But humans are not entirely safe after evacuating earth. There is an alien race that wants to destroy humans inhabiting Nova Prime (the new planet the humans have colonized) and their weapon of choice is a creature known as an Ursa, which can sense fear and find and kill humans that way since they can’t hear, smell or see. But there are certain humans who can “ghost”, which means they do not give off fear and can remain undetected by the Ursas, killing them undetected.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is one such “ghoster”, and also is a superior Ranger who leads a group of other Rangers on one last mission before retirement (of course!) including his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has failed becoming a Ranger thus disappointing his father. There’s another backstory regarding the father/son relationship as well, though, that complicates it a bit more. We learn that Kitai had a sister named Senshi who was killed by an Ursa while Kitai was a boy, and he watched her die from a little bubble she had put him in to protect him. Cypher believes he should have saved her. While Kitai is riddled with guilt, he also feels his father should have been there as well, instead of just on some other mission.

The two of them are thrust into a very dire situation when their ship hits an asteroid belt and they are forced to crash land on earth, susceptible to all of the problems that the planet has now such as large, primal animals that will kill them; and, tempature shifts that cause the planet to freeze overnight. In the crash, everyone but the father and son are killed. Cypher is badly injured, and so it’s up to his son, Kitai, to retrieve a beacon from the tail end of the ship that landed halfway across the planet. The atmosphere is not breathable so he has to take oxygen capsules with him in order to survive. This sets up what I call the “video game plot”, in which a character’s only means are basic tools that all will serve a very specific purpose in getting to the end and completing the mission. You realize, too, that whatever the character is given will be challenged and possibly taken away during the course of the plot as well.

The story unfolds predictably; but it’s directed at such a good pace by M. Night Shyamalan that it feels okay to just sit back and enjoy it. The morality tale that lies beneath the action is nice, and the performances by Smith and his son work even though the elder Smith is far superior as an actor and has much better range. It rarely is distracting because the two of them rarely share the same screen time since Kitai is off on the planet and Cypher is back in the ship, directing him through a communicator.

There’s a nice little subplot involving a large condor as well that serves as possibly the only other “character” in the story. But the focus is mainly on the father and son, and their journey not only to recover this beacon to send a distress call, but also to mend their relationship. For Kitai, he must get over his fear and guilt in order to survive the final “boss” of the film, an escaped Ursa that was being brought along on the ship in captivity. For Cypher, he too has guilt over allowing his daughter to die and his own fear of losing his only other child.

The climax and resolution is satisfying, mainly because the film does not rely on a deus ex machina like so many sci-fi films do these days. Instead, Kitai must look within himself in order to “ghost”; and while you still have to suspend disbelief a bit in some of the third act, we’re invested enough in the characters by then to forgive some things that are outlandish. This is sci-fi fantasy, after all.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a film directed by Shyamalan and it was nice to see him take a step back a bit. He co-wrote this film, and Will Smith provided the story. I think it was smart for Shyamalan to share this time, and it should benefit him for the future if this film is a success. On balance it is a nice enough film with plenty of thrills and even some touching moments that were unexpected. I hope this is the start of a recovery for Shyamalan. As for Jaden Smith, he still has a long way to go. But this was certainly a big step for him

The Day the Earth Stood Still

December 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Movies

You would think a big budget spectacle like this remake of the 1951 classic would be more fitting to be released in the summer time, when popcorn sci-fi cinema permeates the movie theatres; but I suppose that because this one’s supposed to be “thought-provoking”, it was more suitable at the “thought-provoking” time of year, the winter. I guess we have more time to think now that we can’t go outside and do anything, than we do in the summertime. Unfortunately for this movie, there’s not much thought that’s really being provoked. It’s more like it’s being threatened to stay away.

In the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, there is almost a Serling-esque feel to the way the story unravels, and obviously the way it ends, with the choice being left to us whether we want to save ourselves or be destroyed. It’s the misconception of humans that we think that anyone who says “You’re going to be destroyed” by a foreign presence means THEY are the ones who are going to destroy us. It was a very interesting plot–and for its time, it was convincingly executed, special effects wise.

In this modern day remake, we have the gaudy special effects, and the big budget, big screen feel. And this movie fails on every level that the original succeeds on. Well now, that RARELY happens in remakes, huh? What is it about that? Is it just the natural dilution of a remake? Is it just inherent that the remake MUST be devoid of what made the original so good? I didn’t feel that way with the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, or “The Thing”, or “Father of the Bridge”, or even Zombie’s “Halloween” (don’t give me that look!). A remake should be an opportunity to take the original and either see it from a different angle, or improve on what may have made the original…dated. I suppose in the case of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, the special effects. And they didn’t even really do THAT good a job on this remake, either.

The story resembles the original in a way; but it makes a few fatal changes that completely miss the point of the original. Where it gets the story right is in one of the best scenes in the film with John Cleese, playing a Nobel prize winning scientist, Professor Barnhardt, in which he has an engaging dialog with Klaatu about the fact that “it’s only on the precipice of disaster that we change”. That is very true, and it’s something that, had this remake expanded upon, would have made it a slam dunk. Unfortunately the movie gets so caught up in military action, stuff blowing up, and a very melodramatic and tired story between Helen (played as eloquently as possible by Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (played by Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith, who seemed more confused by his own presence than anything else) and their struggles to get along. Since Jacob seems to blame her for his dad’s death, whom she’d only married a year or so prior to, this becomes a principle conflict throughout the film. Like in the original, Jacob’s father died in a war. But unlike the original, this movie fails to bring home the point about war and destruction.

If you have seen the original, there are many mentions about wars and the destruction humanity imposes on itself. In this version, it seems like this is more just about Americans, which is questionable since this was a plot that was supposed to be about “mankind”, not just American “mankind”. There are a few shots of “footage” from other countries that are going nuts over the “Alien Invasion”–but it looks like…there’s America, then there’s third world countries. I think Klaatu would be disturbed by the filmmakers of this movie, that we are so conceited.

There’s also more of an environmental angle to this film which doesn’t seem to work. Are we destroying our earth by killing each other in wars, or are we destroying our earth because we’re polluting it? In the first case, what difference does it make whether YOU kill us or WE kill us. In the latter, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE WHETHER YOU KILL US OR WE KILL US?! It would have nothing to do with us, you would just eradicate us!

Because the movie didn’t work in the big picture, a lot of other things fall apart. What do we know about the father of Jacob, for one thing? What kind of dad was he? What kind of husband was he? If it’s so important, and vital in getting Jacob to trust Helen, shouldn’t we know more about their relationship too? No, instead the movie would rather show military operations and Secretary of Defense shenanigans (Kathy Bates who is the overpowering SOD that again shows our arrogance and whatnot). And some of the movie looked like it was borrowing from “Transformers”.
Another thing that got to me was the product placement. Now I know Hollywood does this often, but man ALIVE this is outrageous. Guess where Klaatu has to meet another “visitor” that’s been living on earth for decades?

No, really, guess.

I’ll give you a hint.

Ba-da-bap-bap-ba.

Oh, and you will definitely know they use LG cell phones; Windows Vista apparently utilizes Star Trek technology; and there is a thirty second sequence that is one big silent car commercial.

It’s just disappointing that this movie did NOT need to be remade, and again, it is frustrating that they missed it by doing exactly what drove Klaatu’s journey in the first place: it’s more about greed and profit than anything else. Now, do I think the original WASN’T made for money? No, but they at least trusted the writers enough to come up with something that would be marketable AND still retained intelligence.

It’s pretty sad when the BEST thing about this movie was Keanu Reeve’s performance. Unfortunately for him, who also worked on screenplay rewrites, the end result was less than stellar.

My rating: :???: