After Earth (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Having sensed that he and his son are drifting apart, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a renowned general who is often away on intergalactic missions, invites Kitai (Jaden Smith) to come with him to work so that they can spend more time together. What should have been a relatively safe trip goes horribly awry when their ship encounters a field of asteroids. Their ship heavily damaged, they have no choice but to crash land on Earth, once the home of mankind but is now a haven for creatures that have evolved to kill humans.
A part of me feels bad for M. Night Shyamalan because it seems as though each time his name is associated with a movie, the majority expect or wish for the project to fail. With work like “Lady in the Water” and, to some degree, “The Happening” (I liked parts of it), casual moviegoers have reason to think this way. But “After Earth” is not as bad as the aforementioned pictures; it is mediocre, certainly, but some sections of the film are entertaining.
The script might have benefited from a bit of polishing. While understandable that the heart of the story touches upon a strained relationship between father and son, and to some degree we know exactly where it is going, it need not have been so corny. Some lines sound too forced that at times we are reminded that we are watching a movie rather than being a part of an adventure.
For example, as Raige and Kitai get into a disagreement about the criteria of aborting a mission, out of the blue one of them begins to talk about something else entirely–a recollection of an event that is supposed to be sad or tragic. Instead, I found myself detached and noticing the strings of the puppet show. This approach would have worked only if the screenplay had a tight grip on the human drama of the story. It fails to move us because the moment is not earned.
The film is visually arresting at times. I marveled at the appearance of the abandoned Earth. Admittedly, it is not at all a challenge to discern which parts are CGI (most of them are) but I am somewhat forgiving when it comes to the visuals as long as they are not too showy as to overpower the material. I liked that the dangers on Earth involve animals that many of us are likely to be familiar with but are given slight alteration in size or function.
A standout sequence involves Kitai having to skydive and as a giant eagle-looking creature pursuits him. Shyamalan makes good decisions when it comes to balancing wide shots and close-ups in order to highlight the urgency of the action. The director is not without talent and I wish that more people were more open to giving credit when it is deserved–even if they think that the movie does not work as a whole.
Based on the story by Will Smith and screenplay by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, “After Earth” is one that I consider to be a “background movie,” appropriate to play in the background during a party or gathering. The slower, less exciting parts give people a chance to catch up and trade gossip. When the action reaches a peak, however, people’s attention is captured until the thrills die down again.
The Karate Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother (Taraji P. Henson) and her son Dre (Jaden Smith) moved to China for better opportunities. On their first day in China, Dre developed a crush on a girl (Wenwen Han) with a talent for music but a bully (Zhenwei Wang) just as quickly interrupted their conversation. It turned out the bully was not just someone Dre needed to watch out for around his apartment complex because they both attended the same school. The fact that the bully knew kung fu did not help Dre’s confidence. The film was without a doubt commercial and at times cliché, but I could not help but enjoy it. There were three elements I loved about it. First, the maintenance man (Jackie Chan) did not teach Dre kung fu until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the story. I thought it was a big risk because the film had the challenge of keeping the audiences interested. It was a smart decision because it successfully established why Dre was someone worth rooting for. For instance, although Dre was bullied, he was not afraid to fight back. Unfortunately, he did not have the technical skills to stand up against other boys who knew martial arts. I found it very easy to relate with Dre moving to a different country and having trouble fitting in. When I moved to America when I was twelve, to say that the transition was difficult is an understatement because I didn’t know the language well and I wasn’t fully equipped to adapt a new culture. So when Dre finally confronted his mom about how much he hated being in China, that scene had a special meaning to me. Second, Henson was pure joy to watch. I’ve mostly seen her in Tyler Perry’s movies so I knew that she was very capable of delivering angst and sadness. I was surprised that she could actually be funny. Every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile because she injected a certain enthusiasm in her character, that everything in China was great, and she was ready to be strong for her son when the occassion called for it. Her facial expressions were priceless. Lastly, the scenes in the tournament made me feel like I was there. The build-up regarding Dre’s hardwork, the bullying, and honor at stake finally came to fruition. Even though Dre’s mentor consoled him that winning or losing did not matter as long as he earned the audience’s respect, I thought Dre had to win no matter what. I was so invested in what was happening, I couldn’t help but vocalize my thoughts. “The Karate Kid,” directed by Harald Zwart, worked as an interpretation rather than a remake. It did not have anything to do with karate (the filmmakers should have just named it “The Kung Fu Kid” to silence the haters–a simple solution) but I was entertained for over two hours.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I haven’t seen the 1951 version by the time I wrote this review so I’m not going to compare the 2008 version to that one. That said, it’s interesting to me how Keanu Reeves can be so good at playing robotic characters (like Neo in “The Matrix” franchise) but so bad at playing real people that are supposed to be emotionally crippled or conflicted (as Alex Wyler in “The Lake House” and Detective Tom Ludlow in “Street Kings”). I thought he was effective here as Klaatu, a humanoid whose role is to determine whether the human species need to be obliterated in order to save the Earth. He was creepy, convincingly powerful, and had a definite sense of purpose. He claims that if the Earth dies, everything else will perish along with it but if all humans die, the Earth and everything that it nurtures will go on living. I thought that was a decent reasoning so I went along with it. What’s unforgivable, however, is its lack of human emotional core. That’s when Jennifer Connely and her step-son (Jaden Smith) come in. Their backstory isn’t enough to convince me why Reeves should spare the human race. In the end, I wanted to see an apocalypse because humans are portrayed as violent people (the United States army) and incapable of standing up to authority, such as when Kathy Bates (as the president’s Secretary of Defense) followed what the president wanted her to do despite her best instincts. There are only four things I liked about the movie which saved it from utter failure: the somewhat brilliant visual effects, Gort as Klaatu’s automaton companion, the idea of humans’ nature regarding a precipice and change, and John Cleese as the Nobel prize-winning professor who we meet in the middle of the picture. The rest is junk, which is a shame because the movie is started off very well. The director, Scott Derrickson, could’ve made a superior film that is more character-driven and less visually impressive. After all, the story is about humanity and why we should be saved from extinction. Since the director lost that core (or maybe he didn’t find it in the first place), the final product is a mess. This picture can be an enjoyable Netflix rental on an uneventful Friday night but do not go rushing into the cinema to see it.