After Earth and M. Night Shyamalan

After EarthOccasionally, for want of something better to do, I’ll see a movie that is getting its ass kicked in the reviews. Movie reviews are almost like Yelp reviews – often critical of things that don’t bother me in the slightest. This weekend I saw After Earth, which is taking a hiding almost everywhere, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 12% and a Metacritic score in the low 30s, and, to go one step further, had a pretty unappealing trailer that left me thinking “what accent are the Smiths trying to do?” and not “we should probably see that, but the fact was, we’d seen most of the movies we wanted to see already and needed something to do in the west valley before dinner.

The movie is not oscar material, and it’s not one of the best movies of the year, but when we all got out of the theater, my wife, my brother, and his wife and I all looked at each other and gave a confused scowl.

“That wasn’t a 12%,” I said.

“We both think that was better than Star Trek (Into Darkness),” said my brother.

“I’m not sure that was worse than Frances Ha,” I said to my wife.

On the way to the restaurant, my wife read me the critical reception section of the film’s wikipedia page, while we shook our heads. If you don’t want to read it yourself, it’s a lot of complaints about Jaden Smith’s acting, and a lot of shots at M. Night Shyamalan.

Because you may not have been aware of it, but the director of After Earth is M. Night Shyamalan.

I don’t remember seeing that in the trailer, and it’s the very last of the opening credits. They’re playing that information close to the chest, and the reason shines through in the wikipedia quotes above: the public has turned on the director of the Sixth Sense now, with a strange vitriol. I don’t understand it, personally. I liked the first few of his movies and I’ve seen fewer of them as time went on, but the emotion I don’t feel that the reviewing public seems to burn with is betrayal. Somehow he has let people down and now his name is an actual liability. And I have to wonder: how much of that Metacritic score is fair and unbiased? Because it seems like people are grinding their axes.

As for Jaden Smith’s acting, we thought it was fine. There are basically two actors in the movie, and in fairness, Jaden doesn’t do as well as Will Smith, and being second best of two isn’t much of an achievement, but he plays the character true: the first thing we learn about Kitai is that he is unready to take his place in his father’s corps, and that is how the movie plays out. Ender’s Game is coming out this year, and that is a story about precocious, competent child soldiers. Jaden Smith’s portrayal of Kitai wouldn’t fit in that universe, but it fits everything we know about the character he is actually playing.

The movie has a few obvious weaknesses. The CGI (especially at the end) is a little weak. The exposition at the very start of the film feels like a last minute addition, because it is done in voiceover and most of the information is redundant. The central conflict between father and son feels a little untrue, which could have been patched up with a couple of quick dialogue changes. And some areas of the setting could have been more thoroughly explored.

But here is my recommendation: If you didn’t see it because of the reviews, see it anyway.

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