DIRECTED BY: M. Night Shyamalan
WRITTEN BY: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan
STRARRING: Jaden Smith, Will Smith.
What happened to you Shyamalan? I mean seriously, what happened!? One minute you’re at the top of the cinematic world, delivering fantastic movies like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Now you’re working as a director for hire on a project you’re clearly had little to no interest in. I understand you have bills to pay and you want to keep working, but I don’t think this is how to go about it. Then again I could be wrong. Maybe his passion is shooting Will Smith’s son running through the woods for an hour, I don’t know. I can’t even decide at this point whether he’s even trying or not. He seems to keep getting jobs despite his outrageously poor reputation. The marketing team for the film even went out of its way to keep him out of the film’s promotional material, so it’s not even like they wanted to acknowledge he was a part of the film anyways! In all fairness, though, unlike some of his other movies I don’t feel like I can attribute all of its failings to him.
The film covers about a movie’s worth of backstory in about a minute and a half, but here’s the abridged version: sometime in the near future, humanity is forced to leave earth after humanity has made the planet inhospitable to live on (how is never really explained, they just show us stock footage of some natural disasters and industrial sites, so I guess pollution or something). After humanity has migrated to their new home, Nova Prime, they find that the universe isn’t such a friendly place and are attacked by aliens! Well…we never actually see the aliens, and they don’t really have anything to do with the plot, but there’s these creatures called the “Ursa” that were made by the aliens in order to kill humans. However, these creatures are blind (for some reason) and can only “see” by detecting the pheromones let off when someone is afraid. Will Smith plays super awesome space ranger hero Cypher Raige, who is, amongst other things, the first man to ever “ghost”, that is have no fear so he can walk undetected near the Ursa.
You got all that so far? Well, none of its really all that important except for the Ursa and ghosting thing so you can kind of ignore it. Jaden Smith plays Cypher’s son, Kitai Raige. He’s a reckless young boy training to be a ranger like his father (We of course know this because he runs faster than everybody else and the teacher/headmaster guy tells us he’s reckless). His father, after returning home from a mission, tells his family that he’s going to retire so he can spend some more time with them. In an effort to win his estranged son’s affections, he decides to take his son with him on his last mission so that they can have some bonding time. On this trip, however, they’re hit a surprise meteor storm and are forced to crash land on an alien planet. What planet is this? Why Earth of course! With everyone dead, and Raige Sr. in poor condition, it’s up to Kitai to travel across the dangerous wilderness to the tail end of their ship, track down the distress beacon (which I guess they didn’t fire when they realized they were going to crash land). Unfortunately, the ship they were on was also transporting an Ursa (for some reason) and now it’s out and ruthlessly hunting our hero. (Well, I think so…it doesn’t really show up until the climax.)
And that’s just the first 20 minutes, and If you think you know where this movie is going from there…well, you’re probably right. I can’t think of a moment in this movie outside of a few jump scares I didn’t predict at least 20 minutes ahead of time. The plot is strictly formula, and adheres to father-son movie tropes and survival movie tropes to an absolute fault. There is no suspense, no surprise, nothing that even resembles actual emotion from the actors. The film has a weird editing style the clashes horribly with Shyamalan’s deliberate, slow paced direction. That pretty much sums up the movie as a whole, really, a bunch of disparate elements that clash together in a way where none of them really work well on their own. It’s frustrating because, like many a Shyamalan movie, I can kind of see what he was trying to do, what he was trying to go for, but he fails out of some combination of laziness and circumstance (or maybe simple incompetence). It’s like he’s averse to any sort of self-revision or change to his vision and just goes with the first draft of everything he does because the initial idea was soooo brilliant. So many of the choices made here just don’t make any sense!
I’m not even sure why this movie was set on Earth (you know, other than the name). This could have all taken place on an alien planet and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story at all. There aren’t the landmarks, nods to civilization, or social commentary that usually come with post-apocalyptic stories. All we get here are woods, woods, river, woods, volcano, locations easily interchangeable with many a sci-fi alien planet. The trailers push this conceit that everything on the planet has evolved to specifically kill humans. Discounting how much of a stretch that idea already is, none of the creatures in this movie outside the Ursa (who aren’t from earth) act in a way that’s specifically antagonistic to humans. Mostly they’re just normal earth animals except…bigger…bigger and more CGish. Seriously, this movie has a budget of 130 million and they can’t make their CG creatures look just a bit more convincing. It’s not like they put any of that money on sets or costumes or anything.
However the major reason this film doesn’t work lies squarely on our film’s leading man. No, not Will Smith, he spends most of the movie sitting around delivering monologues and dispensing self-help book wisdom from the wreckage of the ship. The one who’s shoulders the film largely rests upon is Will Smith’s son, Jaden, and it’s abundantly clear that he is not up to the challenge. His acting has exactly two modes: confused pouting, and whining anger, neither of which is particularly engaging or resembling in any genuine acting ability. He was kind of the same way in the Karate Kid remake that his daddy also bought him, but there he could at least coast on his prepubescent charm (and Jackie Chan, whose mere presence makes any movie instantly better). I could never quite put out of my mind that the only reason he’s on the screen is because daddy paid for the movie to get made. It’s nepotism through and through. Speaking of daddy, I could never quite figure out what Will was going for here with his performance. For most of the movie he talks in this weird accent I can’t place where he over-enunciates everything he says. I don’t know whether it’s just Shyamalan’s direction or Smith not wanting to overshadow his son with his natural charisma. It’s not so much “bad” as it is just utterly bizarre. Some of the films best moments of unintentional hilarity come from when his accent breaks for just a few seconds and we hear him lapse into his usual, easygoing mode of speaking.
Many of the things that usually redeem a Shyamalan movie are largely not present. The careful control of mood and atmosphere is pretty much entirely absent, pretty much cruising on neutral for the entire run. The camerawork and cinematography look like they were shot by a film school student making a student film in the woods because that was the only interesting looking place nearby that they could shoot. Even the score by James Newton Howard, usually a highlight of Shyamalan’s movies, lacks any strong, distinctive themes, saving all the best music for the end credits after most of the audience has left out of indifference.
In the end, this movie is and always has been nothing more than a bloated vanity project, a movie whose sole purpose for existing is to be a vehicle to make Will Smith’s precious gift from above a viable action star. Does it work solidly on any level? No, not really. It doesn’t even work on the level of a “so-bad-it’s-good” movie like The Last Airbender. This isn’t so much blatantly bad as it is…boring. Everything in this movie has been done frequently and often better. Most of the movie’s best moments come from when the façade breaks, the actor’s accents slip, or some forced moment of humor draws an uncomfortable laugh from the audience. I believe that M. Night Shyamalan can make good movies, though with each new movie it’s becoming harder and harder to do so. Honestly, though, I don’t think even Shyamalan at his peak could have done much with the material present here anyways, even if he is credited as a writer. Maybe the next movie will be his comeback, right…right?
RATING: * (out of four)
Oh, and to address the apparent elephant in the room, accusations of ties to scientology have dogged this movie a lot since its release. This movie shares a lot of imagery and philosophical underpinnings with the religion, so it’s kind of easy to draw parallels here and there. To be honest, though, most of the movie’s messages could be pulled from any self-help book at your local Barnes and Noble. Whatever the Smith Family’s tenuous connections with the religion are, I doubt the inclusion of those teachings here would matter all that much considering how incompetently everything else in this movie is conveyed. In other words, the issue is pretty negligible.