So once my Star Trek obsession subsided, my next focus was this film, specifically how awful it would be. After learning that Will Smith thought of the story himself, and then PURPOSELY picked M. Night Shyamalan to direct it (like, not by accident), all I wanted to hear about was the disaster in the making. I looked for reviews every day, but none appeared until the day before, another fatal sign, and when they did appear, they were satisfyingly awful. Many called it the worst movie ever made, the were more than a few comparisons to Battlefield Earth, extensive use of the phrase "vanity project," and lots of attention to the acting skills--or lack thereof--of Jaden Smith, Will's own son, who gets the vast majority of running time. As if like a gift, Will and Jaden gave an interview with New York Magazine in which they talked about masterminding the universe through discerning "patterns," and little Jaden said that these patterns were "Like, multidimensional mathematical, if you can sort of understand what I'm saying." Yeah dude, I understand enough to know that you have no clue what you're saying, and by the way, YOU ARE FOURTEEN.
So I spent large portions of two workdays reading at least forty reviews of this, and, wanting to cut out early on Friday, thought "Fuck it--I'm going to see that shit!" And I did. What I found--and you have to understand it is akin to a knife in my heart to say this--is that it wasn't really that bad, and in fact, I kind of, a little bit, could maybe be said to have enjoyed it. Slightly.
The opening gives Steven Soderbergh a run for the money in the sliced narrative department, as we learn through numerous flashbacks and montages that humanity left Earth after it became uninhabitable (cue war, climate, pollution images), and left en masse for a new planet, Nova Prime, and that was a thousand years ago. But the aliens on Nova Prime weren't thrilled at being thrown off, so they developed these bugs called Ursa who can smell human fear pheromones, and use them to hunt us. Except for Will Smith as--wait for it--CYPHER RAIGE. Yes, that is his name, and so, so amazing. Cypher. Raige. Anyway, he can control his fear to the point where he becomes invisible to the Ursa. Why they can't just use deodorant--one critic helpfully suggests Axe Body Spray--is unanswered, like the many things that just don't make a lick of sense here. Anyway, his son is Kitai, who I took to pronouncing "Kiddie Rage," which is about the whole of it.
So Dad is emotionally shut down, even without Ursa present, and Kitai didn't make it into the Rangers (like Dad, who is king of the Rangers) because he's good at the books but sucks in the field. Mom suggests they need a little bonding time, so Dad suggests Kitai come along on a three-hour tour. A THREE-HOUR TOUR. They're also carrying an Ursa egg--Just Because! They encounter the most unexciting meteor storm in cinematic history, where they get damaged, and no one reacts. You're sitting there wondering HOW Shyamalan manages to drain the excitement out of things that are INHERENTLY exciting, but here's where I started to get it. He's trying (and perhaps failing, but that's another story) to give his sequences shape and a rising excitement, so the ship is damaged, and they try to make it as far as they can, and people are trying to stay calm, until they realize that they can't hold on and the ship is breaking up. I like the idea, but the thing is... the excitement never really rises that much. I really don't know what Shyamalan is trying to get at with muting the excitement of action scenes--something he's done from the beginning, and with very meager returns. So STOP IT. Still, in contrast to the constant, empty bombast of something like Iron Man 3, someone trying to give shape and texture to his material is quite welcome.
Can we divert for a moment here? It occurred to me while watching this that this very tendency is precisely why Sixth Sense WORKED... simply because that slow, extremely low-key mode of expression is well suited for ghost stories where things can be very quiet and we all might freak out over the slight movement of a door handle. Which would also explain why that's the only one of his movies that has been really good (although I haven't seen it in a decade) and none of his others have really worked. We now return you to your regularly scheduled movie review, already in progress.
So they crash, with junior and daddy the only survivors. The ship broke up and the other half is far away, and dad's legs are broken and Kitai has to travel through the dangerous territory and activate the rescue beacon. In here comes the key ridiculous concept of this movie, which is when Kitai is told "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." Even though there have been no humans on the planet for a thousand years! That's a knee-slapper, and suffice to say, someone (and I think we all know who) lacks even a BASIC understanding of evolution. No wonder he's seeing patterns, you know what I'm saying? Plus, it's not true. I got a great deal of amusement out of sitting there going "That herd of bison didn't evolve to kill humans. Those cute piglets didn't evolve to kill humans..." and so on. Ah dear, the trouble they could have saved themselves by just eliminating that one line.
But dad, that's CYPHER RAIGE, by the way, will be constantly monitoring the kid and whispering bullshit slogans in his ear like "Recognize your power--this will be your creation." I forgot to tell you that Dad is so very amazing that he could actually SENSE the "one in a million" meteor storm long before it became apparent to the ship's sensors. I would really love to know WHAT is happening inside Will Smith's mind. Also in the future, they have developed ways in which Dad can see Kitai on a video screen, even though there are no cameras out there. It is 100% inexplicable and--isn't someone EMBARRASSED about this, at least? Anyway, blah, blah, kid goes off, Dad stay home, doing painkillers, and constantly yakking the kid's ear off with his inspirational self-help bromides, while Kitai looked scared and pained. At one point Kitai has to have a whole confrontation with Dad over lingering family issues, forcing Jaden to be alone on screen, shouting to Dad over intercom and, well, not the kindest thing to do to a young actor of dubious talent. The funniest line from a review noted these sequences and said he suddenly thought: "Oh my God, what if this is what it's like when they're at home?"
Kitai first encounters baboons who chase after him (and could obviously EASILY have overtaken him) until he goes into a river and... baboons don't go in rivers? Is that right? Then he encounters a slug, but has no salt, then whatever. Along the way you notice that there is a LOT of greenscreen work happening here. Kitai has to get to thermal "hot spots" to spend the night because the entire planet freezes over every night, another science humdinger, as the lush and verdant tropical foliage (not to mention the animals) survives these nightly freezes just fine. Maybe Jaden could do Dad a favor and swipe a science textbook from middle school.
SPOILERS (NOT REALLY) > > >
After being pursued by an eagle and then attacked by wolves, Kitai shelters in the Lascaux caves (famed for their early cave paintings) and you're like "Holy shit! They're in France! And they now have bison and baboons in France!" Soon Kitai finds the remains of their ship, and dang it all, the beacon won't work unless he climbs the erupting volcano nearby. Turns out that walking up a hillside churning with molten lava is really no big deal at all. He gets there, activates the beacon, and then the Ursa comes to attack. Now, you may be in suspense, wondering IF Kitai will be able to master his fear and defeat the Ursa. It is SO uncertain! And I wouldn't dare reveal the very, very uncertain outcome.
< < < SPOILERS END
The whole way through, there have been all these references to Moby Dick, and you (and the majority of critics) might be like "WHAT does that have to do with anything?" because this is not about one man's monomaniacal quest to slay a mythical beast, nor is it a meditation on sea (or space) travel, but then it finally hit me: It is the literary reference of someone who hasn't even read the book, or so much as read a synopsis. In their mind, Moby Dick is about knowing a big predator is out there, and you'll finally have to face it one day. Thus, the Ursa is Moby Dick. Boy, what a surprise they're in for when (or if) they finally get around to reading the book! There are also numerous scenes of kids enchanted by the book, which, if you've ever read it, is ludicrous.
So, after all this, why did I kind of, sort of, like it a little bit? It's short, and inoffensive, and you have pretty nature scenery, so those are all good. But what works this time is Shyamalan's slow-moving, low-key direction, so the whole thing has a gentle onward movement that is generally pleasant. It also helps that Dad loses contact halfway through, so we don't have him haranguing the whole time. And, in comparison to the cranked-to-eleven throughout energy of most current action films, this actually has some languid points and attempts to vary the energy level, which is welcome.
Not that it's good, mind you. Among the issues are that Smith shows none of his appealing humor and energy, and is a super-serious scold throughout. Which leaves the entire film to be carried by Jaden, who just isn't up to it. Another thing no one will talk about, since it is downright rude--but a huge factor--is that Jaden simply isn't all that pleasant to look at. Especially when making his pained, whiny expression, which constitutes a full half of his performance here, and which elicits wishes to bash him in the face. So he just really isn't that sympathetic, and one is quite aware throughout that the only reason we're watching this person is because he's Will Smith's son.
So there you go, a not-unpleasant watch that really, there's no reason to see. It'll also hold up fine on video, on which still, there is no reason to watch it. Not bad enough to be fun, and not good enough to be really enjoyable, it emerges as nothing more than what it is: an attempt to shove Jaden down our throats as a viable new action star. Crisis averted!
No, but worse things could happen to you, like if you were attacked by fire ants.