In Defense of After Earth

Let me say something right now before I defend this movie: it is a bad movie. It is really poorly made. I would not recommend that anyone watch this film. It was simple of a disaster of near epic proportions.

All right.

Anyone law-savvy take note: never begin a client’s defense like that.

After Earth is the latest movie from fallen star M. Night Shyamalan. The once brilliant master of suspense (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) has fallen to earth with more force than most comets, and appears fully determined to sink down right into the center of the Earth. Following up his first disaster (Lady in the Water) with entertainment turds The Happening and The Last Airbender, there did not appear to be any end in sight. How bad could Shyamalan get… just watch his next movie to find out. Until now.

Seriously, where did the talent go?
Seriously, where did the talent go?

With each bad Shyamalan film, there was always a ‘silver lining’ way to view failure. Lady in the Water was an interesting (yet very flawed) commentary on storytelling. The Happening had a challenging concept that would have made Alfred Hitchcock go: “no way man, I’ll stick with birds.” The Last Airbender was his first and, to date, only movie where there was no such positive spin. Apart from composer James Newton Howard: nobody did their jobs well on that movie.

After Earth is a poorly written movie with a weak leading actor, but still possesses quite a few cool concepts.

For starters, let’s look at a potentially cool character conception that translated incredibly poorly to the screen. Cypher Raige (not kidding on the name) is, in concept, a super soldier. He is emotionally detached to the point of being a living weapon. Yet it does not appear that this was a man born without emotion. Throughout the movie, Rage makes hints to returning to a more human existence. He seems to be trapped in the emotionless void he created to survive. For instance: he has a son that he can only speak to as a soldier.

In the beginning, Raige shows some flickerings of emotion with his wife. After that, there was A LOT of deadpan with this face.
In the beginning, Raige shows some flickerings of emotion with his wife. After that, there was A LOT of deadpan with this face.

This has potential to be an interesting character arch. The danger of writing a character like this, however, is that if it is done poorly, the audience will be forced to endure a cold, emotionless robot as one of their main characters. Exactly what happened to Will Smith‘s performance in After Earth.

Another cool idea: a hostile earth. This realm of science fiction is already starting to come home to reality, but to create the idea of a human-abandoned earth sounds intriguing. Also, this does not appear to be a recent desertion either. The movie gives the audience a planet that has had time to revert to a complete feral state.  There are no real traces of cities or any human settlement left on the planet. The surviving animal species have been left on their own to evolve and adapt into incredibly dangerous and hostile versions of their former selves.

How exactly is this baboon any more or less dangerous to humans than a baboon of today?
How exactly is this baboon any more or less dangerous to humans than a baboon today?

Or not.

Again, another problem of the script breaks through to derail the concept. After Earth feels like two independent ideas sandwiched into one script. In one story, the animals of Earth have evolved to pose a very great threat to humans. In another, Earth has become a planet with extremely dangerous climate conditions. This latter idea dominates most of the movie, however all the set up is done stressing the dangers of the planet’s inhabitants.

“Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.”

Or not.

Also, great thing to tell your son before lecturing him on the importance of not being afraid.

Do not let this man become a motivational speaker.
Do not let this man become a motivational speaker.

There is no real animal threat in the movie, save for an Ursa, which is a chemically engineered non-native of Earth. That line works great in trailers but ultimately comes off as the exact opposite of intelligence.

The cgi rendering in this film: not super great.
The cgi rendering in this film: not super great.

Finally, the story itself. The idea of a father and son getting trapped together on a hostile world sounds promising. The fact that the two have a miserable relationship adds potential for characters. The injury to the father should help to prompt a sci-fi coming of age story that is worth watching. Sure, After Earth‘s plot is simple but there is potential there – just not for a summer action blockbuster.

The best moments of this movie are when it's not trying so hard to entertain. Maybe the expectations of a smaller, independent release would have suited this film better.
The best moments of this movie are when it’s not trying so hard to entertain. Maybe the expectations of a smaller, independent release would have suited this film better.

It fell apart in the script, and whether it was Shyamalan’s directing or Jaden Smith‘s acting, there was no strong performance to save it.

Should you watch this movie: only if you’re like me and you enjoy analyzing and critiquing stories. Otherwise, there is a lot of vastly superior science fiction to enjoy at the moment. The worst may be behind M. Night Shyamalan, but he still has a lot more climbing left to do.

Forgotten Classics: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Samuel Bayer and Fede Alvarez have one thing in common: they were both no-names who got the chance to direct big budget horror. Alvarez used his opportunity to bring new, gory life to Evil Dead, while Samuel… Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Our buddy Samuel directed the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Let the record show: I think the original is just all right. Granted, it has been a few years since I last saw Wes Craven‘s most famous horror movie but I still feel like I can remember all the good parts (and the bad parts – namely Heather Langenkamp’s acting). But let’s not talk about Wes Craven, not right now anyway. Let’s talk about Samuel Bayer and the lovely little film he made a few years ago.

I just watched the new A Nightmare on Elm Street yesterday and boy, I knew I had a winner within the first ten minutes. It’s not ever script that opens a movie with dialogue like:

Girl: “Dreams aren’t real.”

Guy: “No, you don’t understand. This dream is real.”

Girl: “No, dreams aren’t real.”

That’s from the opening couple. You can tell, from witty dialogue like that (thank you for your script, Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer… two people wrote this????) that these two must have a dynamite relationship. Rest assured, it isn’t just the script that’s top notch. Bayer is obviously one stellar director and has gathered a terrific cast. Look at how frightened actor Kellen Lutz appears in this scene:

He perfectly captures the look of someone who just realized he left the water running at home.
He perfectly captures the look of someone who just realized he left the water running at home.

Yes, that is how terrified people look in their nightmares… or when they realize there’s still eighty minutes left to go. Better get used to a lot of young teen (all played by people in their twenties) stares in this film. Really though, they have such classic material to work with. The original film has several memorable moments, with none more than the rise of Krueger’s glove from the bath tub. Rest assured – that scene is in the movie.

A-Nightmare-on-elm-street-2010-trailer-a-nightmare-on-elm-street-10674845-1366-768Rest assured, it has nothing to do with anything else. In the original, this sequence helped escalate the tension that Freddy was actively stalking the protagonist, Nancy. Tension and protagonists are so 1984.

In fact, this film does not feel the need to really introduce the audience to the main character until the 45 minute mark in the movie. That’s right: for the first three-quarters of an hour you are watching characters whose actions have no real consequence on the plot. Doesn’t that just sound engaging? Bayer must have mimicked the Rob Zombie approach when it came to protagonists: not needed because the killer is just SO interesting.

Let’s talk about Freddy Krueger then (played by Jackie Earle Haley…).

First off: what is the point of remakes? It’s a big question but I’m sure that most would agree that one such function is to update a film to the modern era. Sure, Freddy Krueger was scary but that was way back in 1984! Let’s have a look:

Hmmm, actually that doesn't hold up too badly.
Hmmm, actually that doesn’t hold up too badly.

Well, if that’s what they could do in 1984 then 2010 must be –

nightmareelmstreet12126…………………… it looks like the Cowardly Lion had a really bad shave.

Yes, 2010 also knows that make-up is a thing of the past and nothing looks more believable than computer graphics on a man’s face. Jackie Earle Haley is kind of a creepy guy, anyone who has seen Shutter Island can attest to that. Obviously the best thing to do with a talented actor is to cover him in CGI until nothing can be seen of his face or performance. Well, if his visual performance is anything to go on, how is his acting?

Before you ask, at least 90% of his dialogue is delivered in that same monotone, gravely voice. Acting is also for the 1980’s.

Another function of remakes can be to put a new spin on a character. In this case, the movie sets up Freddy Krueger as an innocent victim. A man wrongfully burned by over-zealous parents. This arguably makes for a better origin than this original roots. If Krueger were innocent than the movie could show how people always make the worst monsters, as well as expressing the dangers of mob justice. That is – until the final twenty minutes when the movie reveals that yes, Freddy still did it. Mob justice is the best justice, who needs the police? Great morals for today’s society.

If any out there remained unconvinced that this movie is worth checking out, allow me to share a favorite scene. Nancy is badly injured by Freddy and romantic hopeful, Quentin, rushes her to the hospital for care. There Nancy meets her mother and says she doesn’t want any sedation. The doctors prepare to sedate her anyway so Quentin rescues her from the hospital…. that’s the sequence. What bearing does it have on the story (other than extending it for five more minutes): Quentin steals some shots of adrenaline. Yes, because there are no other sources of energy out there – everyone knows you have to go to the hospital to receive a pick-me-up.

In the age of talented-but-unknown horror directors (like Adam Green and Ti West), it is great Samuel Bayer got the chance to leave his mark on such a famous horror franchise. He did to A Nightmare on Elm Street what Freddy Krueger did to his victims. Karma.

Sequels We Didn't Need: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

In 2009, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller brought Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to the screen. The film told the charming story of Flint Lockwood and how his weather-to-food invention changed his life and the lives of those around him. Using visual, vaudeville-style humor and endearing character development, Lord and Miller were able to bring a soul to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs that elevated it beyond a mediocre 3D effects fest. It is a great little movie and worth a watch to anyone out there who hasn’t seen it (and still has enough of a child’s wonder left to appreciate food falling from the sky). Fast-forward to 2013 when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs returned to the screen. The aptly named Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. It is a sad realization to understand that Hollywood’s response to anything successful is this: make more until it isn’t. Sequels are just an inevitability these days. As audiences, we can only hope that they’re good. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2… is not such a sequel.

Wait, what went wrong? It is such a dynamite concept! I mean, food falling from the sky – that’s at least eight films right there…

3 could be about the evolution of food people and 4 could be about them leaving Earth to find their own planet! And then you have a trilogy of fighting food aliens! Brilliant.
3 could be about the evolution of food people and 4 could be about them leaving Earth to find their own planet! And then you have a trilogy of fighting food aliens! Brilliant.

Yeah, for anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, I will just say that it ends without the feeling that there is something more to tell. Certain movies, like Back to the Future and the Incredibles, close with a tease: the promise of more exciting adventures to come. Flint Lockwood’s story was done at the end of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. He had grown up, realized that he didn’t need to prove himself to everyone when the people who mattered already supported him. The weather-to-food machine (yes, I’m aware it has a more creative name) is destroyed and life returns to normal. There and back again: adventure complete.

Things literally ended with sunshine and rainbows.
Things literally ended with sunshine and rainbows.

That is not to say that all sequels to complete stories are bad. Look at the Toy Story trilogy: each one of those is a complete adventure on its own. Yes, they use the same characters but there is no overarching plot. It is just three separate toy stories that work really well together. So Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 was not dead in the water. It even gained a fun life in its new idea: a Jules Verne-style island of living food. Sort of a next mutation phase to Flint’s invention.

Where Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 falls off is its continuing character development. Here in lies one of the greatest pitfalls for sequels. You can always tell if a sequel is driven by writing or by marketing. For instance, in a sequel driven by writing (Toy Story 2), not every character returns from the first movie. There is no desire to create a “hey, do you remember how cool this was last time?” moment, since the story has enough to tell on its own. In a sequel driven by marketing, everyone comes back regardless if they have anything to contribute to the current story. Case in point:

This guy.
This guy.

Brent was a character who had a purpose in the first movie: he was the guy Flint Lockwood wanted to be. He was popular and people liked him. The first film was also clever enough to showcase the failings of Brent’s type of “popularity” (no one really cares about him as a person, just about one thing he did) and use it to teach Flint what true acceptance was. In the sequel… he’s just there. Really, there isn’t anything that he does that is vital to the plot. I love Andy Samberg but… yeah could have done without him.

The real failing though is with Flint Lockwood. Like I said, his journey in the first film was one of acceptance. He felt like he had to prove himself and didn’t realize that he was already cared for. There was an evil mentor figure (the Mayor, voiced by Bruce Campbell) who led Flint along: pushed him to do more than he was comfortable with, to betray his own instincts just to satisfy others. Luckily by the end of the movie, Flint knows better. He is not looking for acceptance from the wrong places anymore and knows that there is more to life than pleasing everyone. Well, good thing that’s over and done with… right?

Certainly this will never happen again.
Certainly this will never happen again.

Wrong. The sequel re-does that same character growth. The new villain, Chester V (voiced by Will Forte) is essentially the Mayor from the first movie. Wait, no: he’s Flint Lockwood’s childhood inspiration… wait, I thought that was his mom? No matter, rather than evolve Flint – the film regresses him back to a place of insecurity that is well, boring. We already saw that movie.

And it happened again.
And it happened again.

This writing decision prevents any of the other characters from growing as well and basically keeps the movie in an unnatural holding pattern that exists solely to move the plot along. There was potential here as Chester V comes off in the vein of Steve Jobs. A more clever film would have examined the idea of selling scientific advancement for profit vs. knowledge for the good of all mankind. Sadly, this is what we got.

So if you haven’t seen the first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, do yourself a favor and give it a watch. If you have, liked it, and want to see more: watch the original again. The sequel is just the same story… that, like a joke, isn’t as great the second time that you hear it.

Also Sam is a non-character in the sequel. I mean, to be fair she's already been a love interest so what more is there... right? Sigh...
Also Sam is a non-character in the sequel. I mean, to be fair she’s already been a love interest so what more is there… right? Sigh…