In a belated edition of the Cinefantastique Video Review podcast, Steve Biodrowski dissects AFTER EARTH, the vanity project starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film features one or two brights spots to remind us of Shyamalan’s once formidable talent, but the director over-emphasizes the sentimental aspects of a father-son trying to survive on a hostile planet, without generating any real drama or igniting the action scenes with any excitement.
M. Night Shyamalan continues to be a very good director doing not-very-good movies. In the futuristic adventure AFTER EARTH, Will Smith — who also came up with the story — plays a literally fearless warrior who crash-lands with his son (actual son Jaden Smith) on an abandoned Earth grown wild and dangerous in the interim. With his father’s legs broken, it falls to the teen to maneuver a threatening jungle to retrieve the beacon that can signal help — but that will mean braving the perils of an uncharted jungle and, more importantly, controlling the fear that threatens to destroy him (VALUABLE LESSON ALERT). For the audience it means being able to appreciate the lavish production and nicely mounted action sequences while battling the crushing boredom that stems from the inert drama. Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss the film and mourn for ever seeing another THE SIXTH SENSE. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
At first glance, it might seem touching that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith would produce a movie in order to turn their son into a star; after all, what parent does not want a child to follow in his/her footsteps? On closer inspection, however, AFTER EARTH borders on child abuse. Expected to exude macho charisma and dramatic gravitas, poor Jaden Smith (who was actually good in THE KARATE KID) winds up looking like a nervous child who, forced to play baseball by his father, strikes out with the bases loaded, his public humiliation aggravated by unrealistic paternal expectations. Not that Jaden Smith deserves to shoulder the blame: the film intended to serve as his star-vehicle is so badly written and directed that even Will Smith’s prodigious star charisma is dimmed to near invisibility.
There is a brief flash of interest at the very beginning, with a handful of shots cut together to show that Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) has been stranded on an unfamiliar world by the crash of a spaceship. Almost immediately, however, the succinct visual story-telling gives way to a voice-over exposition dump that sets the tone for the rest of the film: Humanity ruined Earth, so they had to move elsewhere, but we encountered aliens who bred monsters called Ursa that hunted us by smelling our fear. (Were we invading the alien’s planet, or were they trying to kick us out of our new home? This is never clarified.) Kitai’s father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) learned to master fear, making himself invisible to the Ursa – a technique known as ghosting.
With that out of the way, we then embark on a flashback to set up the situation we have already seen. Cypher was on his way to a mission to release an Ursa; he brought estranged Kitai along in the hope of a little father-son bonding. After the crash, their only hope for survival is to secure a rescue beacon located in the tail section of the ship, which broke off and landed miles away.* With Cyper’s legs broken, it falls to Kitai to make the hazardous trek on his own. Unfortunately, he and his father are not quite the only survivors of the crash; the Ursa is out there roaming as well. Kitai, we learn from a later flash back (there are a few of them), was traumatized as a child when he saw his sister killed by an Ursa. Anyone want to guess what the dramatic conclusion of the film will be? In case you missed the metaphor, AFTER EARTH is not only about living up to daddy’s expectations; it is also about mastering your fear. On screen, this translates to 90 minutes of Kitai sniveling, followed by the obligatory and totally expected final-reel moment when he man’s up, puts on his manly brave face, and bravely battles the Ursa. The sudden metamorphosis to virtual superhero, enhanced with computer-generated action gymnastics, reminds us of how much better this moment worked in THE MATRIX.
For such a simple – but potentially emotional – idea, AFTER EARTH is surprisingly muddled. For some reason, it is not enough that Kitai is emotionally scarred by the sight of his sister’s death; he also suffers from the belief that his father expected him to save her somehow – a ridiculously tall order for a mere toddler, and one that Cypher never contradicts (what a dad!). For some other reason, the adventure play out on Earth, which was supposedly destroyed by pollution and warfare but looks surprisingly verdant, all things considered. (Press notes indicate that a thousand years have passed, but viewers could hardly be blamed for thinking the emigration from Earth took place within living memory of the characters.) Also, we are told that everything on the planet has evolved to kill man, which seems rather extraordinary considering that no human has set foot there in a long time.
Director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan (whose chance of recapturing his THE SIXTH SENSE glory seems to recede with each new film) emphasizes the sentimental aspects of the father-son relationship, to mawkish effect. He also seems unable to handle the heroics and the suspense convincingly; the film feels like an after-school special in which triumph of the young protagonist is a foregone conclusion. It hardly helps that the climax features Kitai wandering around a mountaintop with the rescue beacon held aloft like a cell phone in a “can you hear me now” commercial.
To be fair, Shymalan is saddled with the vehicle he was handed by Will Smith, which is not only misguided but also misleading. Though the trailer is cut to suggest a father-son adventure, the story is actually contrived to sideline the elder Smith so that Jaden can take center-stage for the majority of the running time, which he spends out in the wild while receiving motivational instructions via radio. With his usual jovial persona well submerged, Will Smith comes across as a stiff; his attempts to emote while stuck in a chair and watching the action from a distance become wearisome rather quickly. With other characters restricted mostly to flashbacks, that leaves little to break the tedium.
The result feels less like a drama than an instructional video: how to survive on an alien planet. And not a particularly inspirational one. “Fear is a choice” – the catchphrase emblazoned on the advertising art – is just not as pithy as, say, “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Technical credits are mostly impressive (Peter Suschitzky’s location photography makes the film look gorgeous), but some of the special effects have a slightly cartoon quality – which might be intentional, considering the overall juvenile tone.
There are one or two brights spots. In particular, there is a glorious eagle (computer-generated) who provides whatever heart the film has, easily upstaging Jaden Smith. For some reason, Shyamalan’s brand of hokum works well with animal characters, whose lack of complex, believable personalities is not an issue. The effectiveness of these moments suggests that AFTER EARTH might have worked better as an animated movie; the stylization of the form could have provided a buffer to help audiences swallow the treacle.
In any case, the old show biz adage about not working with children or animals now needs to be extended to include the phrase “even if the animal is CGI.” It is an amusing irony that, in a film designed to showcase the child, it turns out to be the animal who steals the show. AFTER EARTH (Sony Pictures Release: May 31, 2013). Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Written by Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, from a story by Will Smith. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes. Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere. FOOTNOTE
Of all things I expected from AFTER EARTH, the least of them was that the plot would essentially reprise the set-up of KING OF THE LOST WORLD (2005), which also had crash survivors tracking down the missing half of their vehicle in order to phone home.
This supernatural thriller takes a simple but intriguing premise, supplied by producer M. Night Shyamalan, which sounds like an effective half-hour episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE*, and deftly expands it to feature-length: five people trapped in an elevator are picked off one by one; is one of them a serial killer or the Devil himself? Running a tight 80 minutes, the result is essentially an effective B-movie that delivers equal amounts of suspense and mystery, while justifying its existence on the big screen with some atmospherically ominous photography of cloud-filled cityscapes, implying that this little story has much vaster implications for the world at large. Billed as the first in what is being called “The Night Chronicles” (a series of collaborations between Shyamalan and entertainment company Media Rights Capital), DEVIL is actually superior to any of Shyamalan’s recent directorial outings even as it recycles themes and ideas from his earlier works. Though not afraid of using shocks and flashes of violence, the emphasis is on gradually building tension, which should satisfy horror fans seeking scares; only the hard-core gore-hounds will be disappointed.
DEVIL gets off to a great start, with opening credits playing over a typical aerial scene of skyscrapers – except, in this case, the footage is upside-down, creating a wonderfully vertiginous effect, suggesting the natural order of things has been reversed. The film informs us of as much, through the use of narration, recounting a folk story about the Devil gathering together damned souls on Earth, to punish them before dragging them to Hell. A prelude to this event, we are told, is a suicide – an event which brings onto the scene Police Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who happens to be a recovering alcoholic since the death of his family in a car accident.
Meanwhile, five apparently unrelated characters wind up on an elevator that inexplicably becomes stopped between floors. Fear and frustration lead tempers to flare, and it’s not long before someone is assaulted. Watching the events through security monitors, unable to hear what the trapped people are saying, Bowden tries to get a handle on who these five people are, while security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) – who turns out to be the voice narrating the film – regales him with his mother’s tale of the Devil walking among humans.
With its “5 Little Indians” scenario, DEVIL is more or less guaranteed to generate some suspense: the elevator becomes a pressure cooker, waiting to explode, and the drama is nicely sustained by a talented cast of unknown actors who bring no pre-conceived audience expectations to their roles, thus leaving their characters’ mystery intact. It’s nice to see an ensemble piece not packed with stars, and this (rather than cheazoid exploitation of something like PIRANHA 3D) is a true hallmark of the B-movie: limited resources put to good use.
But that is not enough to sustain a film. Like SAW, DEVIL breaks away from the isolated location, showing outside events; fortunately, it manages to do so without dissipating the tension of the claustrophobic setting. In fact, the exterior scenes of a gathering storm, backed by composer Fernando Velazques’s wonderfully evocative score, augment the tension, making the small-scale events at the story’s core seem larger than life, an archetypal confrontation with Evil. On a more simple narrative level, it is interesting to watch a police thriller in which the cop has only his words to use, the separation between him and the elevator preventing the usual gun play and car chases.
Not that DEVIL skimps on visceral impact. Director John Erick Dowdle not only utilizes effectively the limited space of the elevator; he also superbly exploits the surroundings – dark elevator shafts, spinning wheels and metal cables – to suggest that carnage could strike at any moment. For a film that mostly eschews graphic horror, the threat seems every present, never allowing viewers to slide into a comfort zone, the occasional gruesome flash of broken glass and blood reminding them that this is no genteel thriller.
There are parallels with Shyamalan’s misbegotten LADY IN THE WATER, which also used an old story told to children as a means of commenting on the events taking place in the film. DEVIL’s screenwriter Brian Nelson puts the idea to much better use here by not having all the characters accept Ramirez story immediately; he may want the audience to react like children hearing a scary story from their parents, but he knows he has to earn this reaction, not just take it for granted (as Shyamalan did in LADY IN THE WATER). If anything, DEVIL goes a bit too far in this direction: there are awkward moments apparently intended to make us understand why Bowden would doubt Ramirez (who at one point attempts to prove the proximity of the Devil by dropping a piece of bread and noting that it lands “jelly-side down”).
Essentially, DEVIL is playing the game we expect in this kind of film, presenting us with a rational character who gradually comes to believe in supernatural events; fortunately, the screenplay layers this narrative development with a bit more depth, as the unfolding events force Bowden to confront his own emotional trauma. The character arc is more or less a replay of Reverend Hess (Mel Gibson) in SIGNS, who also lost a wife in a car accident; fortunately, the result plays out in different terms, although still with the sense of redemption intact. The message, in both cases, is that everything happens for a reason; even when things seem terrible, chaotic, and pointless, there is a silver lining waiting to emerge from behind the dark clouds.
Not everything works as well as it should. The gimmick used to disguise the identify of the killer is easy to guess. One character, identified as an Iraq vet, seems rather too squeamish when confronted with a bloody corpse. The ending, although it wraps up the story nicely, lacks the punch one expects after the long build-up. Like PREDATORS earlier this year, DEVIL introduces us to a small group of characters trapped in a life-or-death situation; in both cases, the victims are reaping what they sowed, which makes them not necessarily the most sympathetic group of people, but the point is that even sinners can be redeemed. PREDATORS took a secular approach to this idea, but DEVIL lets it play out in good, old fashioned terms of God and the Devil, Salvation and Damnation – somehow without sounding preachy. In our modern era, dogma and even the finer point of theology are on the out; but the underlying need to believe in something greater and good remains.
The cache of Shyamalan’s name has dropped significantly over the past few years, thanks to disappointments like THE VILLAGE. Curiously, DEVIL recycles many of his tropes (not only does it begin with a suicide a la THE HAPPENING; it also concludes with an obligatory surprise twist revelation), but in the hands of Brian Nelson and John Erick Dowdle, these motifs are synthesized into something new. DEVIL ultimately doesn’t have the profound resonance of THE SIXTH SENSE – it’s a good little movie, rather than a full-blown masterpiece – but if this is any sign of what The Night Chronicles will be, we eagerly await the next. In an era when so many would-be blockbuster crash and burn, we could use a series of B-movies that actually entertain.
DEVIL (September 17, 2010). Produced by M. Night Shyamalan. Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Screenplay by Brian Nelson, based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Music by Fernando Velaszuez. Cast: Chris Messina, Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green, Caroline Dhavemas, Jacob Vargas, Bokeem Woodbine, Matt Craven, Jenny O’Hara, and Kim Roberts. FOOTNOTE:
Think of the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” Going further back there’s the feature film CUBE and, of course, the great grand-daddy of them all: Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, NO EXIT.
This week, the CFQ Podcasters Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski suffer the flames of perdition as they go for a horrifying elevator ride to Hell in DEVIL, the new horror film “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.” The first in what is being billed as “The Night Chronicles,” DEVIL takes a TWILIGHT ZONE premise and spins it out to feature length, with five character trapped in an elevator, one of whom may be the Evil One himself, out to claim the souls of the damned. Is DEVIL a trip into terror? Listen in and find out! Also this week: a final farewell to the late Kevin McCarthy, the actor who starred in the 1956 science fiction classic, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. All this, plus the usual round-up of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.
Here’s the trailer for DEVIL, in which people find themselves trapped in a stuck elevator — and one of them is apparently the Devil.
Story by M. Night Shyamalan, who produces, written by Brian Nelson (30 DAY OF NIGHT) and directed by Drew Dowdle & John Erick Dowdle (QUARANTINE).
Starring Chris Messina, Geoffrey Arend, Caroline Dhavernas annd Logan Marshall-Green.
Due out Septemer 17th from Universal Pictures.
Universal Pictures releases this supernatural thriller, the first in what is being called “The Night Chronicles,” a series of collaborations between M. Night Shyamalan and entertainment company Media Rights Capital. The plot is simple but intriguing: a group of people trapped in an elevator realize that one among them is actually the Devil. If this sounds a bit like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, think of “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” Going further back there’s the feature film CUBE and, of course, the great grand-daddy of them all: Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, NO EXIT. Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle (the team behind QUARANTINE) direct from a screenplay by Brian Nelson (3O DAYS OF NIGHT), based on a story by Shyamalan. The cast of DEVIL includes: Christ Messina, Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green, Caroline Dhavemas, Jacob Vargas, Bokeem Woodbine, Matt Craven, Jenny O’Hara, and Kim Roberts.
Release date: Originally scheduled for early next year, DEVIL has been pushed up to September 17, 2010.
It’s a double-dose of photodramatic discussion, disputation, and dissention on this week’s episode of the The Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Podcast, as Dan Persons, Steve Biodrowski, and Lawrence French take on romantic vampires, macho werewolves, and elemental airbenders. Does THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE deliver? Can the post-production 3-D conversion process add depth to M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of the Nicolodean animated series? And what’s King Kong doing on the back lot of Universal Studios Hollywood? These and other questions are answered with lightning rounds of rapier wit and incisive analysis. Plus: an interview with Nimrod Antal about directing the upcoming PREDATORS.
The conversion process needed here was not to add 3-D to the images, but to add depth to characters and a story that barely qualify as one-dimensional.
The dialogue has all the breath of a collapsed lung. The tone is as fluffy as a fallen souffle. The performances are as tabular as a well-sanded board. The action has all the bounce of a deflated tire. The story extends like an outstretched, horizontal plane, without features or variation to break the monotony. In short – resorting to the cliche my thesaurus and I have been studiously avoiding, even though it perfectly encapsulates the film – THE LAST AIRBENDER is, from beginning to end, as flat as a pancake. And the post-production 3-D conversion only underlines the planar qualities of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest disappointment: dingy and dark when viewed through the polarized lenses, the optical process not only fails to immerse you in the fantasy world on screen; it very often provides not even the minimal illusion of depth. Sad to say, the conversion process truly needed here would have begun in preproduction – not to design the film with 3-D in mind, but to add some depth to characters and a storyline that barely qualify as one-dimensional, let alone two.
THE LAST AIRBENDER (based on the cartoon series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER) is set in a world divided between four nations, each representing one of the primal elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Each nation has “Benders,” individuals capable of controlling their nation’s element. There is supposed to be an Avatar, who controls all four, bringing balance to the world; unfortunately, he has been missing in action for 100 years, allowing the Fire Nation to rise up, attempting to gain dominance over the others. Out hunting one day, Katara(Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang (Noah Ringer) buried under the ice. He turns out to be the epynomous Last Airbender, who ran away from home a century ago when he learned that his destiny would prevent him from having a normal life. Only trained in bending his own nation’s element, he must now master Earth, Air, and Water. However, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), banished from the Fire Nation by his father, knows that the only way to regain favor is to return with Aang as his prisoner.
THE LAST AIRBENDER proceeds with all the choppy rhythm and incoherent storytelling of a film that had been ruined in post-production. (Yes, I’m thinking of you, JONAH HEX.) Apparently pitching his film to fans of the cartoon, Shyamalan makes little or no effort to involve newbies or even explain why they should care; he just throws them into the middle of the Four Nations and lets the story unfold, without bothering to structure it in a meaningful way.
Speaking in simple sentences that suggest a third-grade grammar book, characters walk in and out of scenes almost aimlessly; incidents happen, but the action seldom registers, because scenes are clipped before they have any impact. Instead, a narration is plastered on to explain what’s happening (as if the over-obvious dialogue were not enough). But nothing much needs explaining because nothing much is happening.
Shyamalan presents all of this in a style that suggests his approach to LADY IN THE WATER distilled down to its purest form: we’re supposed to view the film with child-like wonder, accepting its simple-minded simplicity as some kind of innocent purity; to expect anything more is to betray your adult cynicism. Unfortunately, when you attempt to create something child-like, you run the risk of being childish.
THE LAST AIRBENDER’s one glimmer of an interesting sub-plot pertains to Prince Zuko, who hopes to regain his honor by capturing Aang. Dev Patel is a bit strained in his effort to convey the prince’s wounded pride and desire for redemption, but at least he’s trying, which is more than can be said for the rest of his young co-stars. Patel is certainly helped by being teamed with the excellent Shaun Toub as Zuko’s Uncle Iroh. Shoub is the only one who gives a fully engaging performance; he’s lucky enough to be playing the only character with some shading: he’s a member of the Fire Nation, but his commitment to certain principles overrides his nationalism, and he shows admirable concern for his banished nephew. It’s a deep sign of what’s wrong with THE LAST AIRBENDER that the titular character is much less interesting than his chief antagonist.
VISUALS, MARTIAL ARTS & 3-D
THE LAST AIRBENDER features glossy production values and special effects that look great in the trailers, but overall the visual design falls short. Ringer, with his bald head and tattoos, does not cut a striking figure as the Avatar. Seychelle Gabriel looks simply weird with her albino white hair as Princess Yue. At least the creature designs are nice; unfortunately, the creatures are underused, pasted onto scenes like decoration. The exception is the Dragon Spirit (voiced by FRINGE’s John Noble), who makes a dignified impression in only a small amount of screen time.
The martial arts sequences, when they finally arrive, offer a brief respite from the story’s tedium. The concept of different elements combating each other (e.g., fire blocked by earth or doused by water) is well realized on screen, and the use of CGI and slow-motion to enhance the battles is effective, but the actual choreography soon grows repetitious. After watching Aang do his little dance to bend air for the fourth or fifth time, you begin to wonder why his opponents never strike before he has completed his routine. Like BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE, this is a sad case of a film whose fight scenes work better in isolation; viewed as brief, separate clips on the Internet, the special effects and action – such as Aang’s run across the couryard in the middle of battle, with water spouts freezing around him -ignite a sense of anticipation that the film itself cannot satisfy.
In any case, THE LAST AIRBENDER’s visual qualities are marred by the last-minute addition of 3-D (the film was shot 2-D and converted in post-production). This is the worst 3-D I’ve seen in years, adding nothing of interest to the film. Much of the footage still looks flat, and the 3-D glasses darken the image, taking some of the sparkle out of what should have been pristine visuals. You will find yourself tempted to remove the specs and watch the film without them – which means you might as well save yourself a few dollars and see the flat version.
Since THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), Shyamalan’s career has been on a downhill slide, briefly interrupted by SIGNS in 2002. Till now, however, even his weakest films showed some glimmer of his previous talent; it was as if he was caught up by the ego and expectations that come with blockbuster success, and he was trapped into trying to recreate that winning formula. THE LAST AIRBENDER offered hope – a change in direction, working from pre-existing material that could reinvigorate him with the opportunity to do something new and different, a full-blown fant-asia style adventure that left the spook-show stuff behind in favor of epic vistas, colorful creatures, and archetypal heroes and villains. Instead, he has delivered his most disappointing film to date – an empty bauble that could have been handled by any Hollywood hack.
And in the worst tradition of summer blockbuster’s, THE LAST AIRBENDER is a shameless attempt to launch a franchise, whether we want one or not. Not only is the film sub-titled “Book One: Water,” there is also an obvious hook for a sequel placed before the closing credits. After sitting through this installment, however, it is hard to imagine anyone breathlessly anticipating “Book Two.”
THE LAST AIRBENDER (July 1, 2010). Written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandy, Cliff Curtis. Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Keon Sim, Isaac Jin Solstein, Edmund Ideda, John Noble.