After Earth (2013)

After Earth (2013)

Some actors and directors are just so friggin’ bankable. You put them in front / behind the camera and you KNOW you’re going to make big money. Why? Because they have a rabid fan base and you know they’re going to deliver one hell of a memorable film. And if they don’t? Well, you know it’s going to be a fun ride nevertheless. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule; sometimes things go wrong. Normally I’d be one to say that Samuel L. Jackson is in great movies, and they’re generally enjoyable, so combining that with a Sin City esque noir backdrop should work… but you’ve seen The Spirit right? That’s only off the top of my head, and there are a ton of examples of such missteps. So, what about Big Willy, Will Smith? He’s had hit after hit for years now – they really have gone BOOM and SHOOK SHOOK THE ROOM. From the “lows”: (but stupidly successful) wikke-wikke Wild Wild West, to the highs: essentially every other film he’s put his name to, Will Smith has been one of, if not the, most bankable actors internationally. So how does After Earth fair? Are we Gettin’ Jiggy With It? Are we Just Cruisin’? Or is it time to call the Men In Black to cart him away?

After Earth (2013)

Ok, I think I’m about all out of shoe-horning in Will Smith song titles into sentences, but you get the point. The guy’s a legend. After Earth sees him re-teamed with his son, Jaden Smith (seemingly he’s lost his mother’s name in there), in a “future sci-fi epic” wherein Will and Jaden crash land on Earth years after its been abandoned to pursue a life elsewhere in the universe. The aim? To retrieve a beacon that’s some way away so they can get off the planet… and that’s it. That’s the entire premise. Oh, did I mention that Will Smith basically sits down for 2/3 of the film too? I didn’t? Does that add to the excitement for you?

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t enamoured with After Earth. It’s quite honestly one of the dullest movies I’ve seen in recent memory; mercifully it’s kept at a 100 minute run time, as I couldn’t endure any more. This is NOT a Will Smith movie. You will see no humour, you will see no wit. Sure, we’ve seen Will play the serious roles before (Ali, Seven Pounds etc.), but this role is just dry and one dimensional: an elite solider who can “ghost” and avoid aliens owing to his lack of fear (oh yeah, there’s aliens, but they’re not exciting) – he’s also devoid of character. Also, as I mentioned, he spends the vast majority of his time sat down because of a leg injury. There’s very little demanded of Will Smith here, which is a shame as we all know what a talent he is. So, what of Jaden? Well, it’s essentially a Jaden Smith film featuring Will Smith. The trouble? The plot.

Get used to this scene...

Get used to this scene…

The film consists of Jaden Smith just running around a forest avoiding CGI animals. Not crazy, alien animals, no. Mainly baboons and bizarrely man-hungry eagles. And also cutting himself on bushes. This is is. This is your film. Following Jaden in a lycra suit that occasionally changes colour. I wish I was simplifying the movie for you, but I’m really not; it’s simply that dull. The scripting is weak, the plotting is dull and the action is scant on the ground. All with Will Smith uttering some monotonous spiel about fear and danger every five minutes. THEN, when you do finally have the alien section… well, it fails to up the excitement at all. Dull.

After Earth (2013)

This brings me to my next point… the director. We finally see the return of M. Night Shyamalan here. The guy that ruled the world with The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable, before commencing a steady decrease in quality that eventually led to The Last Airbender. So, we see his return, but you couldn’t tell. Having him here seems like a mercenary move to try and bolster some interest in the movie. It has none of his flair and crucially none of his twists. I don’t want this. If he’s going to come back I want him to hit hard with a “classic” Shyamalan, or at least try and attain those same heights again. I don’t want this formulaic, plot-dry attempt at a sci-fi epic. It’s not welcome!

Does After Earth have anything going for it then? Erm… I couldn’t actually tell you. There’s nothing in my mind that I thought “ooo good concept, just poor execution”. It’s just a poor concept with a fantastic lead actor that then proceeds to not use him in the slightest. It perplexes me. Thankfully, Will Smith has an arsenal of films lined up for the next two years, so he’s obviously going to redeem himself for this “blip”, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I’m not really sure why he took the project, considering he’s a guy that can pick and choose roles nowadays. Let’s be fair… it’s not like he needs the money.

So… to sum up this film with another song? Just The Two Of Us. It pretty much epitomises this movie, as there’s very little else to talk about. In fact, you could argue that you don’t really need to mention Will, as he doesn’t serve that much of a purpose here either. Maybe After Earth just needed a catchy Will Smith song to sell it actually? With some “huh”, “yeah” and “jiggy” in the chorus. That’d have had me dancing down the aisles, as opposed to walking out and fearing giant eagles that are CLEARLY man hungry predators on Earth…

Phage Factor:

1.5 Stars

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Dark Skies (2013)

Dark Skies (2013)

The truth is out there… Are you hearing that theme song in your head yet? Yes, The X-Files did wonders for getting the concept of aliens “out there” into the public domain. It triggered an unhealthy fascination in what’s up in the skies for a lot of people. The same people (mainly guys) also developed an unhealthy obsession with Gillian Anderson. Me? I’m just fascinated with how David Duchovny looks almost exactly the same now as he did back in 1992. Whatever alien gloop he’s using on his skin, I want some! Sure, aliens have taken many forms in the movies too – from the horrific “tongue-y” xenomorphs in the Alien franchise to the little guy who’s got a really long glowing finger and is obsessed with going home – but none are more famous than the “Greys”. You know the ones: really tall, long limbs, huge black eyes… oh, and they’re grey. Think Roger from American Dad! or any alien seen in South Park. Got it? Good. So how does Dark Skies, the latest alien horror movie, deal with the deities from the sky?

The Signs of Dark Skies are evident for all to see...

The Signs of Dark Skies are evident for all to see…

Well… have you seen Signs? You know, when M. Night Shyamalan was still delivering top notch movies that you really wanted to go out and see? If you’re with me, then lift that plot up and supplant it into Dark Skies and you’ve essentially got the premise. I know what you’re thinking if you’re a regular reader: “Hey, Phage, where’s the plot summary? I don’t like change – just do things like you normally do!”… but I’m honestly not kidding when I say that Signs and Dark Skies are almost exactly the same film. Replace the farm from Signs with a suburban neighbourhood, whip out Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson and replace with Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton and you’re pretty much on the money.

OK, I’ll give you a summary lest I lose you forever into the void that is the internet: Dark Skies follows the lives of Daniel and Lacy Barrett and their two young boys. Sure, they’re going through financial troubles, but that’s the least of their worries when their youngest, Sam (Kadan Rockett) starts to act peculiarly and attributes his odd behaviour to the “Sandman”. But that’s only the beginning… as soon the whole family is engulfed in what can only be described as an “extraterrestrial” experience…

Dark Skies (2013)

I’m a bit surprised actually, as I’ve made the film sound wholly more exciting than it was. The crux of the problem with Dark Skies isn’t that it’s got a bit too much in common with Signs, but the fact that the pacing is entirely off. Especially for a “horror” movie. I know that I often lament the use of loud noises, camera jerks and cheap startling tactics, but they do at least add some (false) frights into a horror movie. Dark Skies lacks all of these for at least the first 3/4 of the movie. This would ordinarily cause me to commend the film. However, their absence actually exposes the critical weakness of the film: nothing’s happening. It’s not suspenseful – nothing’s happening.

We’re all accustomed to horror films ramping up the tension over their run time. This is especially true with the Paranormal Activity franchise; it’s their calling card. You know the scares are going to get bigger and more intense the longer the run time goes on. Hell, I can still see the ending of REC in my mind’s eye (now that was a horror film!)… that was a build-up punctuated with a ton of scares along the way. It seems that Dark Skies saved all of its material for the final quarter of the film. This wouldn’t be bad, if the final quarter wasn’t quite so poor too. You already know how it’s going to end.

Dark Skies (2013)

The trouble is that the film tries to shoehorn in too many ideas from other films. You have the obvious Signs similarities, then the use of surveillance footage (Paranormal Activity), night vision cameras (Paranormal Activity 2) and emotionally disturbed children (Poltergeist). What you’re left with is a product that isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

All that being said, I admire the film-makers for being bold in attempting something a little different from the normal LOUD NOISES approach to horror movies; making it unfortunate that the plot is a bit too bare and basic. When I saw that it came “from the producer of Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity“, I thought I knew what I was going to get (clue: NOISES), but I was mistaken. Turns out I wasn’t mistaken about the ending though…

Ultimately, I just failed to be scared or even feel absorbed by the plot of Dark Skies. Even the most “startling” of modern horror movies at least have me hooked into the plot to see how it’ll all play out, but this was stripped away by my overwhelming sense of déja-vu. Dark Skies isn’t for those with short-attention spans, but nor is it for those that want a pay-off in their films. If the skies are dark and forboding outside your house, don’t try venturing out to the cinema for Dark Skies. You’d have more fun re-watching The X-Files.

So back to the real question here… just how does David Duchovny do it? How does he still look as youthful as he did in the early 1990’s? Maybe it was the fact that he played a character obsessed with aliens? Perhaps he actually did encounter aliens and they gave him some magical youth formula… that’d make a lot of sense. Or maybe it’s just the well-documented fact that he was a sex addict for much of his life and he’s actually a vampire absorbing their youth as he goes. Now that’s a film idea! The truth IS out there.

Phage Factor:

1.5 Stars