June 21, 2013

Jaden Smith Is The Albatross Around The Neck Of AFTER EARTH

"I like it, but I think it's something bad."
I'd really love it if Will Smith would stop trying to get me to like his kids.

To be fair, I have no real feelings about his daughter Willow one way or the other.  She had that one pop song about her hair that I barely remember and then they tried to package a remake of Annie around her that she thankfully outgrew before it could happen.*  And I actually enjoyed Jaden Smith in The Pursuit Of Happyness, but he was so young at the time that it was less about what Jaden was doing and more about the kind of attitude he brought out in his father.  I fully believed that Will's interactions with Jaden were reflective of their actual relationship at home - they weren't two actors in a scene, it was a father talking to his son.  The remake of The Karate Kid was probably a better judge of Jaden's talents as an actor and he's decent enough, but he's also being propped up to a certain degree by a Jackie Chan who was gracefully beginning to acknowledge his own age.

But make no mistake, no matter what Sony's marketing may want you to believe this is 100% Jaden's movie.  The two Smiths play a father-son duo from a human colony far in the future, 1000 years after mankind has fled to the stars in order to escape the world which we ravaged with pollution and mass destruction.  En route to another planet, the elder Smith detects a "one in a million" meteor shower based on an almost imperceptible vibration in the ship's hull (the plotting is that brand of dumb) and their transport ship is ripped in two and crashes on Earth.  In order to be rescued they must retrieve an emergency beacon from the tail section, which landed kilometers away.  Unfortunately Will Smith, who's character is named CIPHER RAIGE (I shit you not) breaks both legs and severs an artery, leaving him confined to the ship while his son Kitai must set out across the hostile environment in search of salvation.  That means that the whole movie lives and dies with Jaden Smith, as he's the one has to fight off irate monkeys and weird lion creatures while his father watches via automated camera drones.  Unfortunately, Will Smith sitting in a chair trying to hack a makeshift arterial shunt is exponentially more compelling than Jaden Smith battling a jungle full of pissed off animals.

The film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, his first in the three years since the double death blows of The Happening and The Last Airbender.  He's clearly trying to claw his way out of director jail here, ditching his trademark twist endings completely and essentially hitching his wagon to Will Smith, one of the most bankable international stars working today.  Where once people would flock to theaters simply because of Shyamalan's involvement in a movie, those days are long since past.  Now he's nothing more than a hired gun, helming a movie that is one step short of a vanity project for Smith family brand.

It's obvious that Shyamalan was not the driving force behind After Earth.  (Everyone's weird accents feel like the one creative touch that he brought to the picture.)  If nothing else, his movies have always had a strong theme and a clear message, even if those messages became increasingly heavy handed over time.  This movie starts with a obvious set-up for a story about our short-sighted environmental attitudes and the long term consequences of humanity's actions, but that's quickly dropped in favor of weird plants and bizarrely evolved predators.  Instead the movie is about conquering one's fear.  You see, after taking up residence on a new world, humanity has had to fight against an alien enemy that breeds creatures that can detect certain human pheromones - they can literally smell fear.  CIPHER RAIGE** is considered to be mankind's greatest hero because he can suppress his fear to the point that he becomes invisible to these creatures, a method they call "ghosting."  And of course the ship they were on was transporting one such beast, so it naturally breaks out of its cage and stalks Kitai, who's still haunted by the memory of watching one of the monsters kill his older sister.  But he doesn't really have any kind of emotional breakthrough in order to conquer his fear.  When he does finally ghost it's an accident, much the same way his father first discovered the skill for himself.  (Smith's telling of that story is easily the best single moment in the film, another example of him inadvertently making his son look bad.  Smith recalling that memory out loud to an empty room is far more riveting than all of Jaden's acrobatics and one-note resentment combined.)  And even after Kitai has conquered his fears and proven himself to be the kind of soldier his father can be proud of, a.k.a. his singular motivation for everything he does in the entire movie, the moment is immediately undermined by a hackey joke about giving up the military life to go work with his mom.  Ugh.

I've spent the two weeks since seeing this movie trying to figure out exactly what kind of film Shyamalan was trying to make, and something tells me that even he would be hard-pressed to give you an answer that isn't, "the kind of movie that makes Jaden Smith look like a fucking badass."

So in this summer's battle of the "lone man on a post-apocalyptic Earth" movies, I guess Oblivion wins.  But really, we all lose.

*It's recently resurfaced with Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Sandra Bullock Cameron Diaz.  Daddy Warbucks has been renamed Benjamin Stacks.  Whatever.

**I just can't type that name without using all caps

Title: After Earth
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

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