Film Review: After Earth

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd December 2013.

During a trip to NYC earlier this year, there were very few places to turn without being confronted by a huge billboard promoting the then upcoming Will Smith movie, After Earth. Co-starring his son, Jaden, Columbia Pictures had high hopes for the big budget sci-fi flick.  Will Smith is one of Hollywood’s biggest, and most importantly, bankable stars. His name alone above the title should have guaranteed a blockbuster. Unfortunately, audiences voted with their wallets and the film tanked, returning only US$60 million from a budget of US$130 million. Lab coats and gloves on folks, it’s time for the autopsy of After Earth.

In the future, the polluted Earth has been abandoned and mankind has escaped to a new planet, Nova Prime. Alas, Nova Prime is already an alien race’s humble abode and after numerous ignored eviction notices, the deadly Ursas are dispatched to wipe out the humans. Ursas are attracted to human fight or flight pheromones and it is only through the fighting prowess of the Rangers, who can completely control their fear, that mankind prevails.

Legendary Ranger General Cypher Raige (Smith) is on his final mission, accompanied by his son, Kitai (the other Smith), when an asteroid storm sends their ship crashing to Earth, where all living creatures have evolved to kill humans. With his legs broken, Cypher sends his son on a dangerous mission to retrieve a homing beacon. The only problem is that Kitai is a failed Ranger cadet and is unable to control his fear.

Actually, there is another problem, the film is terrible.

Adapted from a story by Smith, After Earth is the ultimate vanity project. The film is produced by Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith and his brother-in-law Caleeb Pinkett. Make your son the co-star and voila, potentially eliminate any objective filmmaking whatsoever. Luckily, Smith found himself a fantastic director. Oops.

Ten years ago, M. Night Shyamalan (pronounced Shama Lama Ding Dong) was the hottest auteur in Hollywood. His thrillers with a twist, The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable were massive hits. And then it all went downhill. The Village and Lady in the Water showed that the formula was wearing thin. The Happening and The Last Airbender were completely unwatchable. Now a gun for hire, Shyamalan’s name is nowhere to be found on any promotional material for After Earth.

For some reason, Smith has chosen to extinguish all of his natural screen charisma and charm in favour of a cold and humourless performance, complete with bizarre accent. And Jaden fares little better. The cute kid in The Karate Kid remake (you know, the one without any karate), is now a whiney teenager. By the middle act of After Earth, I was hoping that he’d be lunch for one of numerous CGI creatures.

In the future, everyone wears beige, and lots of it. Despite this, I appreciated the futuristic design of the spaceships and dwellings. Based on organic shapes found in nature, the art design overall is excellent. Note that the none of the art designers’ surnames is Smith.

Plot holes abound in After Earth. One of the driving tensions is the film is Kitai’s dwindling supplies of breathing vials. Why does he require them, yet his father, trapped in the debris of the spaceship but breathing the same air, does not? What is point of a high tech survival suit that changes colour to display the health of the wearer? Let’s hope those CGI killer baboons are colour blind. Hypercolour clothing is so early nineties.

With his legs broken, Cypher injects himself with a pain killer which warns of drowsiness. Perhaps the DVD box should have come with the same warning. Even Smith can’t stay awake in his own film.

After Earth is a dull snoozefest. All the way through I couldn’t help but think about what I wanted to do after After Earth. My verdict is best described by my favourite lines of dialogue from the film:

Kitai Raige: “That sucked.”

Cypher Raige: “That is correct.”

After Earth is now available on DVD, blu-ray and on-demand.

Published in: on January 7, 2014 at 16:39  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Box Office Bomb Autopsy: The Lone Ranger

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23rd July 2013.

Hollywood is reeling after a string of blockbusters failed to perform at the box office. White House Down (starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, due in Australia on September 5), Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger (both now showing) have all tanked, with the latter projected to cost Disney over $100 million in losses. That’s a lot of Disney Dollars for the House of Mouse.

Hi-ho Silver, let’s perform an autopsy on The Lone Ranger before the body gets cold, although one could argue that it was already dead on arrival.

I booked ahead for a screening of The Lone Ranger on its first weekend of release, anticipating a full house. To my surprise, there were only a handful of people in the cinema. That’s a pretty clear indication of the lack of interest in the franchise. How many people worldwide have been waiting for a Lone Ranger movie? Well, I only know of one, my dad. He absolutely loved the film. As for me, I can’t remember ever seeing a Lone Ranger TV show. I know the catchphrases and the William Tell overture but that’s it. How did Disney expect to market this film to children?

Previously, Disney relegated its more adult orientated output for Disney-owned imprints such as Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films or Touchstone Pictures. Not so anymore. The Lone Ranger begins with the standard Disney opening sequence and soon follows it with the villain, Butch Cavendish, played by William Fichtner, eating an adversary’s heart. Despite the Lego playsets and merchandise, this violent film is not for kids.

Director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp have previously struck box office gold with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The same formula is employed here: a complex story with supernatural overtones, Depp completely engrossed in a goofy character, big budget action sequences, a Hans Zimmer score and an overlong running time. Unfortunately, audiences were already starting to lose interest in Jack Sparrow and company by the third sequel (with a fifth entry on its way) and Verbinski and Depp may have gone to the proverbial well once too many. And why call it The Lone Ranger when it’s clearly Depp’s film as “sidekick” Tonto?

There are some major problems with the tone of this movie which is also confusing audiences and critics, much of it surrounding Depp’s portrayal of Tonto. There’s no doubt that Tonto is a racist stereotype. Whether you are comfortable with this largely depends on whether you believe that Depp has Native American ancestry. In May 2012, Depp was adopted as an honorary son of the Comanche Nation but has no confirmed Native American bloodlines.

The Lone Ranger features some violent sequences of Comanche warriors getting mown down en masse by machine guns. Clearly it is trying to acknowledge historical atrocities, but almost immediately we return to Depp playing the fool as Tonto. The film is trying to say something. I’m just not sure what. And neither do the filmmakers.

Despite its problems, I still had fun with The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer has a great name and shows solid comic timing as the real sidekick of the film, the titular character also known as John Reid. The cinematography, especially in Monument Valley, Arizona, is handsome and the action sequences are skilfully handled. You can see every one of the $250 million dollars spent on the film. The baddies, played by Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson, are appropriately nasty (for a non-family film). Besides my complaints above, my only other gripes are some pretty poor prosthetic work on Depp’s old Tonto (although not J. Edgar terrible) and Helen Bonham Carter playing her standard quirky character.

The Lone Ranger may have failed to fill Disney’s coffers but don’t feel bad for the House of Mouse. Last year they reaped in $1.5 billion on The Avengers and will soon be launching some new entries in a little known film franchise called Star Wars.

Published in: on July 23, 2013 at 17:50  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,