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: When I was growing up, the likes of Tomorrow’s World on TV always fascinated with their unlikely and outlandish gadgets, like machines that could print on the outside of an egg without breaking it, shiny discs that contained a whole album’s worth of music, or small flashing pens that could erase your memory. Well, I can’t actually remember seeing neuralisers on there, but they must be real, as surely nothing else can explain how I can’t remember anything that happened in Men In Black 2? I definitely saw it, and I vaguely remember Rosario Dawson being in it, but other than that one of the most downright disappointing sequels of all time seems to have been forever expunged from my grey cells. Is the only solid argument for another sequel, so long after the second in the series, that it’s being produced in the hope people might remember it this time?
The one immutable of the series has always been the presence and the star power of Big Willie. Since rapping out the theme for the first movie, one of the world’s biggest stars has become synonymous with the MIB brand and he’s front and centre in MIB 3, so much so that this rapidly becomes his journey, his narrative and emotional arc, not least because the universe manages to forget his partner about ten minutes in. While Smith is as reliable as ever, the movie does take something of a risk by shuffling Tommy Lee Jones out early on and replacing him with Josh Brolin, but it’s a brave call and one that pays off well, Brolin’s uncanny version of an unfeasibly young K never causing you to doubt for a second that he is the pre-incarnation of the curmudgeonly Jones, and Smith and Brolin thankfully manage to capture just about the same odd couple chemistry that Smith and Jones did previously.
The reason for the body swap is time travel, an old fallback of the sci-fi genre and one that can work very well, but that can also become catastrophically confused in the wrong hands. Other than the opportunity to interact with a few historical scenarios, such as a well thought-out Andy Warhol sequence, and to see Brolin do his thing, the time travel never feels fully exploited, and also isn’t applied entirely consistently throughout the film. Men In Black also stood out for its freakish bad guy as well as its coterie of unusual aliens, and this also feels another partial success, Jermaine Clement’s bad guy generating moderate amounts of menace but feeling oddly bland at times. Emma Thompson and Alice Eve also leave little impression as the replacement for Rip Torn’s Z, written out no doubt to Torn’s real life exploits. The rest of the quality of the original, from the background alien design of Rick Baker to the jaunty Danny Elfman theme, is present, correct and reassuringly familiar.
What Men In Black 3 does lack most is big laughs. The series has never been laugh out loud funny, but there’s never more than mild chuckles raised here. But what it does lack in laughs it makes up for with an emotional core, driven out of J’s relationship with both generations of K and the plot’s success in giving their partnership a real sense of meaning lacking in both of the earlier sequels. The most enjoyment will be derived from slightly resetting your expectations, as director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen focus on the relationship and the characters, and most unexpectedly those not entirely hard of heart may even shed a little tear at the end, and even with time travel you’d have done well to see that coming. For all the rumours that the script arrived half-finished, the plot is maybe the most satisfying of the series and while you might not be longing for a fourth trip to the alien well, it might at least take you a little longer to forget this one.
Why see it at the cinema: The opening prison escape and the final Apollo 11 set-piece are both well designed and justify their place on the inside of a multiplex this summer. The cinema screen also gives you the best chance of capturing all of the tiny background details first time, including all of the celebs-who-are-really-aliens on the screens at the back.
The Score: 7/10