Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 05, 2013 1:37 pm 
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Karate Kid turns space hero

The Shyamalan-Will Smith collaboration starring Will's teenage son has been lambasted by the US critics as egregious nepotism. I will grant you it's a bit silly. But Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of AV Club points to some redeeming features. "For a $130 million vanity project, After Earth is remarkably lean" and "clean and simple," "a no-frills wilderness survival tale with sci-fi trappings" that most of the time has just two characters on screen with "big chunks" that "pass without dialogue." The 100-minute run-time is also lean by Hollywood blockbuster standards. These are great virtues in the overstuffed world of summer blockbusters. If you can ignore all the negativity surrounding it, After Earth is a boy's adventure story that's fun and satisfying.

This movie may also have resonances for African Americans the white critical community failed to note. The black film critic Armond White begins by pointing out that "Boys without fathers are the target audience." I was struck by how sensitive After Earth is to the delicate fate of an African American family, torn apart, yet stubbornly and triumphantly warm and loving. A stark opening image of the now hostile Earth even reminded White of lynchings. Not certain white critics saw that. White went on to equate the wild and hostile nature on the Earth of a thousand years hence, which man child Kitai must face, to the ghetto's mean streets. The "ghosting" the father has invented to hide fear White likens to the Mask all blacks wear as described in a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Will and even Jaden have rap chops, and White sees hip hop references here: dad's name, Cypher, is a hip hop term for community. Is all this too ingenious? I don't know, but you can be sure Will and Jaden Smith know they're black. This is not a great movie, but if it's really such a terrible mistake as some claim it certainly comes off remarkably unscathed in the watching.

The setup is indeed simple, and well calculated to appeal to kids. A thousand years from now Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his 14-year-old son Kitai (Jaden smith) are the sole survivors of a space-ship that crash-lands on Earth. Dad, a severe, emotionally withholding military space travel super-honcho, has wound up with two broken legs and he's fading fast. It's left to Kitai to race 100 kilometers through a now hostile-to-humans nature to find the tail of the ship that contains the inter-planetary distress signal thingy that will save them -- or they die. Father and son are in constant communication, till they're not. Cypher has been an absentee dad, the family has tragedy in its past that flashbacks suggest might have left Kitai with survivor guilt.

Early scenes establish that Kitai, who just failed to get promoted to "ranger" at the space academy, is dying to prove himself to his dad. Dad learns from mom that he's a "sensitive" and "intuitive" boy: in other words, cut him some slack. So dad takes son on a space trip, this gesture paralleling the nepotistic privilege that made the movie. Well now Jaden/Kitai really gets to prove himself to lofty dad. And a lot of the time he looks convincingly scared. I was reminded of how the French actor Tahar Rahim said it was easy to play the terror of his young character thrown into a big Paris jail in Audiard's The Prophet, because he was terrified as a rank beginner to be starring in a film by the famous director. Only Rahim was in his twenties, and Jaden Smith really is only 14. Nonetheless while it's perhaps valid to say Jaden is too young to star in his own blockbuster, stories for kids do give kids starring roles.

This is like an afternoon movie set on a farm or a camping trip, a simple story that normally would be executed with simple means. Instead it's paradoxically set in the prevailing summer blockbuster mode of the sci-fi action flick. Gadgets like Jaden's body suit, constantly changing color to reflect weather and capable of sprouting wings, is silly fun: he must have enjoyed wearing it (and probably sweated a lot too). Whoever designed the space ship and dwellings had an outré sense of style. They're all sort of like things made of cloth and bones. Most of the beasties Kitai must face are like speeded up Nature Channel stuff, with just one big full-fledged high-budget alien monster at the end. In keeping with Vishnevetsky's astute observation, Kitai's trials are not so overwhelming and numerous you lose track of them.

Smith Junior, Jaden, already starred -- with important help to be sure from Jackie Chan -- in a satisfactory (though itself lambasted as nepotistic) 2010 Karate Kid remake, so this is not his first starring role in a movie, and though just a tyke then, he "co-starred" with his father earlier in Muccino's quite good 2006 The Pursuit of Happyness. Here he's taller, solider, but still a reedy kid, a mixture of cockiness and insecurity that is about what the story calls for. An aspect of After Earth that's problematic is the role of Will Smith, who downplays himself and underplays his role, and yet both in the story and the production is obviously the crucial element, giving the film a set of built-in contradictions. And his putatively Scientology-related message about fear and danger is intrusively motivational-lecture-y.

While some critics have spent all their spleen on Jaden and Will, others have virtually ignored them to concentrate on making mincemeat of the the director of tarnished reputation, appearing here as a hired gun. I can find nothing distinctive about his work this time except his choice of the designer above mentioned for the space ship, the gadgets, and the very un-rectilinear structures, like the ruined ship and the Raige family dwelling, all of which defy usual expectations. This is better looking and far less tedious than its predecessor, The Last Airbender. Sadly, Shyamalan may be best not doing his own stuff now.

After Earth opened in the US May 31, 2013.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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