The Pitch: Father / Son Family Fun Day 3000.
The Review: Can art actually shape the future? Do the science fiction works and films of our present shape our own destiny? If After Earth turns out to be a remarkably prescient vision of our future, then we can look forward to life on distant planets, being ravaged by creatures that hunt us by our fear and replacing doors with curtains. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan, master of the twist movie but whose career has seemed on a downward trajectory ever since The Village dispensed with credibility in the name of unexpected plot developments, has teamed up with the Smith family of Will and Jaden to produce a story inspired by Smith Sr.’s late night TV watching. The story of a car crash where a son sets out to get help for his stricken father drove Will to wonder how this would play out a thousand years hence, and he felt M. Might’s particular sensibility would be an ideal match to this particular story.
So the story itself is simple, delivered with a small dollop of initial exposition where we learn that the fantastically named General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has become the first person to be able to defeat the Ursas, predatory creatures used to kill humans who are blind but sense by detecting fear pheromones. Able to put fear aside, in a technique known as ghosting, Raige is a military hero, but his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) has failed to repeat this success, having failed in his own bid to enter the military. Circumstances contrive to throw the two together, and when their ship crash lands on a distant and dangerous planet it not only leaves Cypher injured but the dangerous Ursa they were transporting on the loose (yes, they really were transporting a lethal creature to be able to train their troops), and Kitai must set out on a quest to save the two of them and overcome his own fears.
Twists or not, Shyamalan’s storytelling has been backed up by deliberate pacing and an understated visual style, neither of which would seem to lend themselves particularly to a ninety minute science fiction film. What he’s also done with an alarming regularity is make some reasonable actors look quite poor. Regrettably, Shyamalan brings all of these gifts to bear on After Earth, filling Jaden’s cross-country journey with the urgency and passion of a half-hearted jog for the bus in the rain. Both Smiths also emerge from this with little credit, both having given significantly better performances in the past. It’s a toss up for which comes over as more embarrassing: the opening exposition delivered by Jaden makes it sound as if English isn’t his first language, and possibly not his second, but it’s outcringed by Jaden and Will having a father / son discussion in the crashed ship, where Smith the younger has the pained of expression of someone who’s just smelled the world’s most unpleasant odour and Smith the elder the countenance of a man who’s responsible for creating the smell, but will never ever admit to it. Award winning acting this is not.
It’s all over mercifully quickly and reasonably predictably, but a few nice moments and some breathtaking scenery are what save this from complete mediocrity. Even in his worst films, Shyamalan’s been able to conjure up moments of drama or tension and he does manage a few brief set pieces here which just about redeem the whole enterprise. It’s a frustration that Shyamalan still feels as if he’s got a good film or two in him, but The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable feel a desperately long time ago now and projects such as this – which feels inescapably like a Will Smith vanity project run amok – are not doing him any favours. The Smith family are more likely to shake this one off, but let’s hope that what lies in everyone’s future is more compelling than this. (And doesn’t have curtains for doors.)
Why see it at the cinema: Sony Pictures’ first film shot and projected in 4K digital, there’s a crispness to the imagery which generally works well, but for every beauty shot of ash falling at the top of a volcano, the digital process exposes other flaws, such as CGI monkeys who don’t appear to have evolved since Jumanji.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence, threat and injury detail. Younger children are more likely to be bored than scared or scarred.
My cinema experience: Had a catch-up day at Cineworld Stevenage, taking in five films that I’d otherwise managed to miss. Consequently After Earth was my 10:30 a.m. warm up, and I was surprised to see a decent crowd (almost two dozen people) happy enough to make the early morning trip. They all stayed to the end as well; the one walk out just taking a very late toilet break, it transpires. It was at least enough to warm me up for a better day, and the projection was well served by the digital photography which looked great on the big screen.
The Score: 4/10
The Review: Ever wondered what you’d do if the world ended? I’m sure there’s supposed to be a siren or a maroon or something, although I will confess to not being 100% sure, and that might be for lifeboats rather than the coming of the apocalypse. Of course, a lot would depend on how much warning you would have: in Armageddon, they could have had eighteen days, but Deep Impact saw the giant rock coming months away. Possibly, of course, the more warning you had, the more likely it would be to leave you feeling a bit down in the dumps. Hence the Melancholia of the title has a dual meaning- Lars von Trier’s latest, and possibly most epic, work to date is actually as much about depression as it is about the end of the world.
The first image we see on screen is Kirsten Dunst, framed by images of death and the destructive power of nature, in a visually stunning silent opening that seems to suggest that the end is nigh, but merely serves as a prelude to the main events of the film, which are divided into two parts. The first focuses on Dunst’s Justine, who has arrived at her wedding reception but seems strangely distracted and listless, keen to avoid interaction of pretty much any kind, even with her unusual family; her doddery dad John Hurt, her disaffected mum Charlotte Rampling, and her increasingly frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire is the focus of the second part, as she and husband Kiefer Sutherland take in the now almost catatonic Justine and attempt to coax her out of whatever has gripped her.
It’s definitely a film of two halves, but also undoubtedly the decision to put the cataclysmic event right up front helps to make the whole film stronger as a result. Even through the first half, which is the most conventional section of the film (if there can be such a think in a von Trier work), there’s a pervading sense of doom, and the eclectic casting helps to keep the audience unsettled even though events move at a snail’s pace at times. The performances feel at first as if they’ve all come from different films, von Trier not telling them in advance what kind of movie they were making, but as events unfold the unusual casting starts to make sense, and the odd little details scattered around, such as the unusually large number of telescopes, serve to slowly but surely draw you into the world that von Trier has created. The first half is noisy and cluttered, reflecting the normal comings and goings of a wedding reception, even if most of the guests are slightly dysfunctional, but it only serves to heighten the tension for the second half, where everything becomes more intimate, and a sense of inevitability sets in.
It’s also where the three best performances reveal themselves, Dunst, Gainsbourg and Sutherland doing good work in the first half but excelling in the latter part, and Dunst’s best actress at Cannes, slightly overshadowed by the outpourings of her director, may not be the only awards attention she gets this year. It’s the kind of awards performance often described as brave, but Dunst does get to run through a full range and it’s one of her most mature performances to date. But it’s not just the acting; from the use of Wagner in the score, to the artistic and bold combination of imagery, the film has an operatic feel which befits such monumental events and it’s a rich feast for your eyes and ears. Melancholia is, a little like its main subject, a little frustrated and occasionally frustrating, but manages to be simultaneously outlandish and natural, capturing a unique point between the surreal and the normal and isn’t afraid to deal with big themes and big ideas, both on a personal and a global level.
Why see it at the cinema: The first five minutes alone demand to be seen on the biggest cinema screen possible with the sound cranked up to full, as they’re an experience in themselves. The rest ain’t bad, either.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Viggo Mortensen is making a career out of less than cheerful characters. Ever since he escaped from Middle Earth, he’s been wrapped up in stern moods and miserable looks, often in the company of David Cronenberg. Now he teams up with the director of The Proposition to bring to life, if that’s the right word, Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
By turns almost religiously faithful and carefully respectful to the source material, this somehow loses some of the power of the original prose. No sense is ever given of the exact nature of the apocalyptic event, but neither is strong reasoning given for the journey undertaken, which makes the whole enterprise feel unfocused.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the road movie feel is broken up by the constant flashbacks. Gradually the story is pieced together, but this doesn’t have the direction it needs, and cannot get by on mood alone, when the mood is bleak but actually would benefit occasionally from being bleaker.
Continuing the trend of movies with sprinklings of famous cameos, especially Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall in ‘is-that-really-them?’ layers of muck and make-up, this has many effective moments, that sadly do not all add up to being the sum of their parts.
Why see it at the cinema: The post-apocalyptic scenery, especially the occasional panoramic view, is stunning and deserves to be seen on the best screen possible.
The Score: 6/10