Sometimes a bad movie makes it all too easy for a reviewer to pick it apart. So it goes for After Earth, a stilted, unbearably dreary sci-fi melodrama marking another Taking Your Kid to Work collaboration between Will Smith and his wannabe rapper/thespian tyke, Jaden Smith.
The film does away with any goodwill I had left over for the father/son acting duo, who first teamed up onscreen in 2006 when they starred in the touching The Pursuit of Happyness, on the very first scene. “Mayday, mayday,” a space ship pilot screams in voiceover to a black screen, and I immediately knew this movie was in trouble. Then we see a quick glimpse of the Smiths, staring at each other while their interstellar vessel crumbles around them. Cypher Raige (Fresh Prince) and his son Kitai (Karate Kid) are wearing oxygen masks, but it’s fairly evident the film is the one on life support.
Cypher decided it would be good for the chip off the old block to tag along with Daddy on a mission, something the boy’s stay-at-home mom Faia (Hotel Rwanda‘s Sophie Okonedo) wholeheartedly supports. Kitai, you see, keeps hitting a wall every time he tries out to become a Ranger (i.e. follow in his father’s footsteps). He’s book smart, his supervisor observes, but he freezes out in the field. The Raiges, along with the rest of humanity, fled Earth after – wait for it – we destroyed the planet’s ecosystem. As if this notion isn’t heavy-handed enough, archival footage of floods and environmental calamities saturate the screen, just to make sure we’re paying attention.
One freak asteroid storm later, father and son, who share a truckload of personal baggage, are the only survivors of their ship wreck, which happens to crash land on our very own third rock from the sun. A thrilling survival tale surely must ensue, right? Wrong. Cypher broke both his legs during the collision, meaning it’s up to an overwhelmed Kitai to journey through a hostile wilderness to retrieve the ship’s beacon so they can phone home. With Smith père out of commission – he’s relegated to Big Brother status, equipped with omniscient cameras that follow his son’s steps – Jaden is burdened with having to carry this picture on his slim shoulders. No go. The kid’s a stiff. The young actor gets his fair share of closeups, but all he can muster is a scaredy-cat grimace, whenever he’s not bickering with his dad.
Who’s sitting on the director’s chair, consistently resorting to the Sledgehammer School of Filmmaking when he’s not lulling us to sleep? Here’s After Earth‘s dirty little secret, which provides this review with an all-too-appropriate plot twist: This sorry excuse for a summer release is the new M. Night Shyamalan movie, the first one he directed since he ruined The Last Airbender – aka the Avatar anime series – for millions of fans by making the muddled live action adaptation. You see, Mr. Shyamalan, the whole point of making a comeback, even one in which your film’s producers have swept your name under the rug in the hopes moviegoers don’t notice it, is redeeming yourself for prior misfires, reminding your admirers why they liked your work in the first place. Granted, there’s nary a gotcha-moment, eleventh-hour storytelling sleight of hand in sight, but what the Philly-based auteur offers instead is far less preferable than sticking to his formula. He’s made a dull, humorless sci-fi adventure that looks cheap and, at 100 minutes, feels at least a half hour longer.
Will Smith has a couple of decent moments, but the stoic routine wears thin, and does not compensate for Jaden’s one-note mugging. Shyamalan, who shares a screenwriting credit with Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), seems to be under the impression that families will flock to see a feature-length Family Day with cut-rate visual effects (Jada Pinkett-Smith is credited as a producer). Here’s the thing, Smith clan: Most families I know are looking for a break from the whining and bratty antics they have to put up with when they’re not taking a breather at the multiplex, not a reminder of said behavior.
Take note, Mr. Shyamalan, from another revered world-class director who has created fantasy realms from scratch to the delight of a devoted following. Hayao Miyazaki, often nicknamed the Japanese Walt Disney, has garnered devotees from all corners of the globe since the mid-80s, when he founded the venerated Studio Ghibli and became an authority in traditional hand-drawn animation. Until the Disney folks got involved in the 90s, however, few American audiences outside the film festival/anime convention circuits got to see his work. Last week two of Miyazaki’s better-known films, made at different junctures in his career, were finally released on Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S.
It was actually My Neighbor Totoro (1988) that introduced most stateside audiences – including this reviewer – to Miyazaki’s whimsical sensibility, and the gorgeous Blu-ray transfer makes all the bright colors and exquisite hand-drawn animation pop. The story goes like this: University professor Tatsuo Kusukabe moves to the countryside with his daughters Satsuki and Mei while their mother recovers at a city hospital from an unspecified illness. It doesn’t take long for the plucky heroines to discover they’re not alone in the nearby forest. The Totoros enjoy their privacy, but gradually the girls become acquainted with the furry creatures, who, as they eventually realize, have magical powers. Kid’s fare? You bet, but look in the mirror. Once you fall under this animation wizard’s spell, your inner child comes out like a genie from a bottle, and that’s probably going to happen before the iconic Catbus, a triumph of design, makes his spectacular entrance.
Miyazaki won a 2001 Academy Award for Spirited Away, still his most accomplished film to date. It’s baffling that Disney chose to release the movie he made after this one, Howl’s Moving Castle, on Blu-ray before Spirited Away. For me, Castle is his sole misfire, the tale of a young woman, cursed with premature old age by a spiteful witch, who joins forces with a debonair wizard who lives in the titular house, a structure that with a turn of a doorknob, can take you to all kinds of different places. Like Spirited Away, it features a fine music score by Joe Hisaishi, but unlike that masterwork, the film is tonally all over the place. He’s riffing on his previous works, and the resulting mishmash amounts to less than the sum of its parts. But even minor Miyazaki is still well worth a look, so keep feeding your rental service queues, animation fans.
Or better yet, catch the latest Studio Ghibli release at O Cinema. From Up on Poppy Hill, which Miyazaki co-wrote but did not direct, was so warmly embraced by patrons at the Wynwood arthouse that it is returning this weekend by popular demand. The film, a tender coming-of-age story set in the coastal city of Yokohama in 1963, represents a thematic change of pace for the filmmaker. The tale of Umi Matsuzaki, a high school student who helps her grandmother run a boarding house while her mother is studying abroad, deals with delicate, mature subject matter with a sensitivity and maturity that puts most American counterparts to shame. A tentative romance blossoms between Umi and Shun, the son of a tugboat operator who is taken with the signal flags Umi raises every morning, something her father, who perished during the Korean War, taught her. (The message for passing ships: “I pray for safe voyages.”) Shun abruptly cuts off his courtship of Umi after she shows him a picture of her father. Why is he turning his back on her? Director G?ro Miyazaki, working for the screenplay his father co-wrote with Keiko Niwa, allows the story to breathe, and also introduces some welcome comic relief in the form of the teens’ school classmates, who band together to rescue their deteriorated clubhouse, “Quartier Latin.” It’s a modest offering from Miyazaki and his creative team, but its gentle charm ultimately won me over. Now this is a father/son collaboration I can get behind.
From Up on Poppy Hill returns to O Cinema for an encore run this weekend only. My advice: see the original version in Japanese with English subtitles, which screens Saturday at 9 p.m. And Sunday at 1 p.m. And 5 p.m. My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle are currently available for rent and purchase on Blu-ray. After Earth crash lands at area theaters in wide release on Friday.