After Earth

I became convinced, while watching After Earth, that it was based on a novel. I was wrong, and I’m disappointed, because this is a story that I really believe could be told more effectively in prose.

That said, it could also be told more effectively in the medium of film. After Earth underestimates its audience at some junctures, and at others seems to paint itself into a narrative corner, leaving itself with only cliches and overtly telegraphed character moments to pull it back out.

Aesthetically, the movie is lush, and presents a vision of humanity’s far-future that is paradoxically both bleak and somehow more hopeful than today. The design of space ships, architecture, and even clothing is very organic — akin to the natural-futuristic aesthetic found in films like Aeon Flux.

Tonally, however, this is an apocalyptic war film. We’re met with a doomed humanity, in a desperate race to save itself again annihilation by the Ursa — a breed of predatory aliens apparently designed to kill humans. 

ursa
What a cutie!

This is where the first set of questions arises.

Why are the Ursa “designed” to kill humans? Is that just a throwaway line, akin to calling them “apex predators”? Or were they actually engineered? If the latter, how, why, and by whom? Are they the natural inhabitants of the planet that humanity attempted to colonize after leaving Earth, not vicious predators at all but just regular life-forms living their own lives a la Alien?

Alas, we viewers never get those answers.

As Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) crash-land on Earth we learn that the planet is now quarantined for being completely inhospitable to human life. Accoring to Smith’s character, “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” On top of this, the climate has changed drastically — but not in a way that would be believably consistent with climate change. No, instead, Earth is now an evil realm in a fantasy novel where nightfall brings a literal creeping frost that descends over previously mild biospheres and freezes everything instantly, somehow without doing any long-term damage to the plant life.

It’s almost like Earth has been transformed into an elaborate training simulation meant to strengthen Earth’s military forces — which could be an interesting, Ender’s Game-esque turning point for the narrative. Unfortunately I can’t give the writers that much credit. This is just worldbuilding that tries to be cool but ends up so broken that it can barely support the narrative. 

The function of the film’s technology is just as wobbly. Raige Sr., his leg wrecked, stays on board the ruins of their spacecraft while Kitai goes off in search of a rescue beacon that ended up at the crash site of the front half of the ship. Ostensibly, a combination of video and 3-D mapping technology allows Raige Sr. to observe his son from all angles at all times. But Kitai hides things from his dad at key junctures.

How much can Raige Sr. actually observe at a given time? Why does Kitai deign to hide things from his father when his father is miles away, unable to touch him, only trying to offer realistic guidance? How did Raige Sr. actually survive the crash in the first place, when the last thing we see is him being sucked out an airlock and (presumably, if we’re dealing with physics here) dumped several hundred miles away from the site where Kitai finds him?

Honestly, at this point, the story doesn’t even matter. There’s some pseudo-philosophical themes about self-control and letting go of fear, but they become so mired in the utterly nonsensical background structure of the tale that any poignancy that they would have had is totally drained.

I can’t recommend After Earth in any way, but if you’re feeling up to the task of constructing some wild fan theories to fill in those plot holes, have at it.

 

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Enemy Mine

What an odd movie. The concept of Enemy Mine doesn’t seem new, but maybe that’s because I’ve been watching so much Star Trek for the past two and a half years. If Enemy Mine came first, then it certainly inspired a number of Star Trek episodes (along with episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and the like.)

Roger Ebert told the Chicago Sun Times in 1985 that Enemy Mine “made no compromises in its art direction, its special effects and its performances – and then compromised everything else in sight.” That holds up as an accurate description of the movie. Set design, acting, sound — all these are incredible. The Drac language sounds totally foreign, seems to take into account the physiology of its speakers, and is all-around believable as an alien language. The Drac themselves are still bipedal and humanoid but the asexual reproductive systems and lack of binary gender are brave in a time of green-skinned alien babes.

That said, the writing often feels very lazy. Zero — absolutely zero — thought is given to how human culture will have changed in this future. Look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That show is ridiculous (ridiculously awesome), but at least it recognized that baseball is probably going to be a relic of the past in a couple centuries. 

Enemy Mine, on the other hand, proudly and obliviously features a scene of Dennis Quaid (as Willis E. Davidge) teaching his alien child how to play touch football — it’s a part of human culture!

Enemy Mine baby
Sometimes a family is just a single unshaven man and his adopted alien baby.

I have to give Quaid credit for really selling the idea that he loved that slime baby like his own first born child. The costuming and makeup in this movie is amazing, and the baby is no exception, but it was also a bit difficult to not laugh derisively at this scene. (Sorry.)

My personal annoyance with this movie is that it really seems to wind up for a big strike at the political implications of a human and a Drac — two species at war with each other — being forced to survive together, and coming to understand their similarities. It’s peace on a microcosmic scale, but still — the fact that Davidge and Shigan become friends, I feel, should have had some impact on someone, somewhere. Maybe a group of humans would have heard about it and lost their taste for the war, or for Drac slavery. Maybe eventually enough people on both sides would have heard the story, forcing negotiations to take a more peaceful turn.

But instead, Enemy Mine keeps its scope exceedingly narrow — something I normally like in movies, but something that seems like a terrible waste here. After Davidge is rescued, the second half of the story revolves around his efforts to rescue his adopted son — and all the other characters seem to just completely ignore the implications of the fact that this guy is trying to rescue a Drac like the kid’s his very own.

In the end, I found Enemy Mine frustrating. It had a simple, but potentially powerful story concept, and a production team that was obviously dedicated to realizing the world in which that story takes place. I don’t know if I should blame the writers or the director for its fiery trainwreck of a denouement, but it really left me wishing I could blame someone.

 

Dark City

What we have here is an extremely flawed movie that in my humble opinion still manages to be somehow charming.

I have to point out right away that there are a lot of parallels between Dark City and the Sturgatsky brothers’ The Doomed Cityenough that I’d balk at chalking it up to mere coincidence. I would not be surprised to learn that someone on the writing team for this movie was a big fan of the book. 

Dark City follows protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he wakes up in a bathtub in the eponymous city with no recollection of who he is or where he’s been. In trying to figure out just what’s going on, John finds himself pitted against a city whose inhabitants who seem to change occupations and identities at intervals. No one can remember the last time they saw the sun, and no one can seem to remember a route out of the city.

The biggest issue with this movie is its complete and utter lack of subtlety. Where The Doomed City meanders for well over 400 pages without ever revealing the true nature of the city, Dark City opens with two minutes of expositional narration in which everything is handed to the viewer on a silver platter. The city is an experiment devised by a dying, but technologically far superior race of aliens dubbed “The Strangers” who have come to Earth in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the human soul, and somehow using this information to reinvigorate their society.

That could have been an interesting reveal if it were made at the film’s climax. Instead, we the viewers yawn along as Sewell’s character struggles to grasp the facts that we already know.

The design of the aliens, too, really drops the ball. Seriously, what do you picture when someone says “millenia-old race of technologically superior aliens”?

dark city 2
An aging gothic industrial band?

Did the production company have a bunch of outfits left over from Blade: Trinity?

Oh, it’s true that the “actual” aliens are more like parasitic energy-based worms that dwell in the brains of their human hosts. They’re just driving human meat suits in order to “blend in.” But… why exactly do they have to do this? Did they have other bodies they possessed before they discovered Earth? What happened to those?

Not once in the film, during a confrontation with a city inhabitant, do the Strangers even attempt subtlety. They’re a roving band of mobster Nosferatus, threatening their victims with knives. Luckily, they also have the power to erase the memories of all the humans they encounter, not to mention bending reality to their will… so the point seems moot.

The city itself exists in an indiscernible climate, and apparently simultaneously in several different time periods — the clothing, interiors, and building design range from Victorian to late eighties’ imaginings of a near-future. The aesthetic of the whole film feels dated, but at the same time very cool — not quite on par with the aesthetics of, say, 2001: a Space Odyssey, but perhaps a poor-man’s version of that.

The performances are overall decent, despite the over-the-top of the aliens, and the pacing of the movie would be excellent were it not for the fact that it spills all of its secrets right from the get-go.

If you read The Doomed City, though, I do recommend this one — if only to get a feel for what the American fan version is like.

Upcoming Spock Thoughts 17.05.07

Working my way through the J.J. Abrams Trek timeline, and having some strong feelings about the 2009 reboot’s treatment of Spock in particular. Check back soon for an essay on how killing Amanda Grayson was probably unnecessary and furthermore, how TAS offered a more nuanced portrayal of Vulcan personal growth! Woohoo.