Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Managing Expectations

I saw a movie and it was okay.

The thing is, it's a movie that was "awarded" multiple Razzies, at a yearly event "celebrating" bad films by mocking them. The film is 2013's After Earth, a science fiction action film starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith. M. Night Shyamalan directed and, as I understand, later disowned it. I was still curious about the film because writers I like had worked on it: Gary Whitta co-wrote it with Shyamalan (from Will Smith's story idea) before Whitta went on to the wonderful Rogue One, and in an unusual move three writers with science fiction experience, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, and Robert Greenberger, wrote a several-hundred-page history of the future where After Earth takes place. That's a level of detail films rarely bother with; but if After Earth had been a hit, that writing would have been the basis of tie-in works expanding on the film.

But, of course, After Earth wasn't a hit. The tie-in novels were limited to a prequel and a novelization, and of course most people are only aware of the film. Its plot: it's a thousand years from now, after humans evacuated Earth to live on another world called Nova Prime. An aggressive species (and why wouldn't they be aggressive? They were there first) called Ursas also live there, they fight us, and we're limited to a few sheltered parts of that planet. A father and a son, the father a fully trained Ranger and his son who has failed one key aspect of his Ranger training — but is otherwise promising as a soldier — are on a mission to among other things deliver an Ursa to another world for study, but an accident forces the ship to make a faster-than-light leap to safety...and that leap sends them to the abandoned Earth, where they crash. The father and son are the only survivors...along with, perhaps, that Ursa.

I saw it. It's...not bad. I know, faint praise. I get what the filmmakers and star were trying for, but thinking on it the day after I have one big hangup: there doesn't seem to be a good plot reason for the film to take place on Earth. It happens on Earth for thematic reasons — show what Earth without humans could be like — but the opening set-up felt overly coincidental and complicated. (Maybe Peter David's novelization explained it better. Novelizations can do that.)

What it does well is render the world, ten centuries after we'd left it. The film's beautiful; and it gives the future Earth's animal life a real role, to the point where we can tell some animals' emotional states. On Nova Prime and in the various spaceships we see, there's a good variety of people; it's a nicely realistic mix of races.

Some of the attempted science fictional touches still seem a little contrived, like having the Earth freeze overnight so part of the drama is seeing if the son can get to shelter before frost reaches him. Ultimately, I found the film unsatisfying. I knew that was likely.

I've long been someone who tries to find aspects of films to like. I made a habit it of this in the nearly three years I wrote movie reviews for the Hermiston Herald, and usually I could find something. Not to damn with (again) faint praise, but usually something interesting could happen, even in as cynical and bad a film as 1999's Inspector Gadget. I found interesting stuff in After Earth. Recently I found interesting stuff in a couple of Roger Corman-directed cheapies that I hadn't seen until now, 1959's A Bucket of Blood and 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors. I saw Star Trek Nemesis again, for only my second time (I'd seen it once, Super Bowl Weekend 2003, in a second-run theater; I hadn't seen it opening weekend, like I had with most Star Trek films), and I was still frustrated by it. I don't hate Nemesis as much as Star Trek Into Darkness, but whoa do I have issues with it.

There will be better films. Thank goodness. But these were worth a try. I can always be more adventurous in what I see.

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