Not since John Travolta kicked the tires on Battlefield Earth and pronounced it good to go has there been a big-name sci-fi flameout quite as disastrous as Will Smith’s After Earth. The movie is dull and talky and fundamentally misconceived. The whole point of putting Will Smith in a picture is to light it up with his warmth and witty line readings -- with his world-class charm. Here he plays a grim-lipped buzz-killer who never cracks a smile. And while the presence of director M. Night Shyamalan might once have promised saving grace, this film is just another sad token of the man’s decade-long artistic decline.
The story -- hatched by Smith, co-scripted by Shyamalan -- is set way in the future, a thousand years after the inhabitants of Earth fled their eco-ravaged home to set up shop on another planet. Here, Smith plays Cypher Raige (one of the movie’s several silly names), a space-fleet commander so focused on his job that he has neglected to bond with his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith, Will’s own son). So Cypher agrees to take the boy along on his next space mission. Unfortunately, their vessel is knocked out of the heavens by one of those pesky space storms and plummets down onto a hostile planet that we soon learn to be -- yes, Earth.
Cypher and Kitai are the only survivors of this crash landing, which has broken both of Cypher’s legs. What they need now is a signal beacon to summon help. Unfortunately, this key piece of equipment has been hurled about a hundred kilometers away. Kitai must go fetch it, and it won’t be easy. As Cypher tells his son, “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” (Since there haven’t been any humans here for a thousand years, one wonders how the local wildlife could have evolved to even recognize them.) All should be well, however, if Kitai will just man-up: “Danger is real,” Cypher says, “but fear is a choice.” Thanks, Dad.
So the stalwart Kitai sets out on his journey, with Cypher monitoring his progress via an array of cool cockpit tech that was miraculously undamaged by the impact of the ship’s landing. From this point through most of the rest of the movie Cypher and Kitai are never in the same place -- they communicate only by two-way audio chatter, with Kitai describing to his father what’s going on and Cypher telling his son what to watch out for. There’s a very large tarantula, a herd of gibbering baboons, a really big bird, and a great slavering mass of CGI alien. But while Cypher has told Kitai that the planet is subject to wild weather swings, and that the whole place freezes over every night, what we actually see as the kid scurries along is a landscape lush with verdant plant life. We might be in Northern California, or the Costa Rican rainforest (two of the places where the movie was actually shot).
The fact that Cypher is on the verge of nodding out through much of this further limits Will Smith’s expressive possibilities. And while 14-year-old Jaden is not a bad actor, he also doesn’t have his father’s effortless charisma (not yet, anyway). The movie has the feel of a vanity project. It was produced by Will Smith and Jaden’s mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, and his uncle, Caleeb Pinkett, and it seems intended to establish the younger Smith as a full-fledged action star capable of carrying a whole movie (since his father is mainly set dressing). This does Jaden a disservice, because he can’t do that. Given the movie’s excruciating listlessness, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could.
Now You See Me
Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me has an appealing comic spirit, and it’s a considerable amount of fun, in parts. It concerns four talented but low-level illusionist-hustlers: one card master (Jesse Eisenberg), one mentalist (Woody Harrelson), one daring escape artist (Isla Fisher), and an artful pickpocket (Dave Franco). One day they receive a mysterious summons to become part of The Eye, whatever that may be. They have no idea who’s behind this outfit, but they agree to join, and soon they’re headlining Las Vegas with a group act that ranges from disappearing rabbits to water tanks full of deadly piranhas.
The actors alone make the movie worth watching. Eisenberg, less jittery than usual here, is deftly comic; Harrelson is once again wonderfully droll; Fisher is an entirely lovable screwball; and Franco (brother of James) is a very good-looking guy. Also on hand are Michael Caine, as the quartet’s shady multimillionaire mentor, and Morgan Freeman, as a magic-debunker with a hit TV show. And after the four young stars manage to rob a bank in Paris without leaving their Vegas casino stage, a grizzled FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) shows up with a lovely Interpol operative (Mélanie Laurent) to get to the bottom of their shenanigans. However, as Eisenberg observes, “The closer you look, the less you see.”
And in fact, the group has an overarching plan that resists easy detection. (There’s a very neat twist at the end.) Unfortunately, the movie’s main hook -- all the nifty magic tricks on view -- is also its central problem. Seeing some of these spectacular stunts in person would be one thing -- we’d be wowed. Seeing them in a movie, though, is unimpressive on a basic level. Anything can be faked in a movie; therefore, so what? In a medium built upon illusion, our sense of wonder is much more difficult to engage.