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Prepared for a surprise review?

Just kidding.  After Earth wasn’t good. (And hey, at least this is the end of the bad scifi movies that have come out so far.  Hopefully.)

The good news though: it’s not the worst thing Shyamalan has done by far (Lady in the Water, the Happening, and the Last Airbender are duking it out for that distinction), but it’s still watchable enough.  The big problem to me was the biggest clunker of a line ever, from Cypher Rage: “Everything has evolved on Earth to kill humans.”

This is obviously stupid, mainly because humanity left earth a thousand years prior to the start of the film.  How can something evolve to kill something that hasn’t been there to evolve against?!

And then the movie completely abandons that conceit too (well, except for the random temperature fluctuations) with boneheaded decisions by Kitai Rage, Cypher’s son, or at least some of them (that gorilla charge in the beginning? Caused because the dumbshit threw a rock at a lone gorilla’s head).  There’s other logic breakdowns too: for example; an anti-toxin for something you haven’t encountered in a thousand years and shouldn’t have an anti-toxin for such a thing anyway?  Blind monsters that react to fear?  And that overnight freezing bit?  How do all the plants actually come back from that?

It’s those stupid inconsistencies and more that prevent this movie from being any good, because there was, strangely, a decent movie beneath all of this[1].  This didn’t have any of Shyamalan’s gimmicky twists this time, but rather, a more linear storyline with a few flashbacks peppered throughout.

The story is as follows: Kitai just failed the ranger exam, which would have allowed him to join the rangers in being able to fight off the Ursa, those blind pheromone smelling beasts that kill humans without remorse (my god that’s a dumb idea, just reiterating that).  Kitai, as a ranger, would have also achieved a phenomena known as “ghosting”, wherein one loses all fear and is in complete control of his body and emotions.  They’re undetectable to the Ursa, so they’re in effect the perfect defense.  Meanwhile, Cypher comes back from a mission, and decides to take on one more: taking a captured Ursa sack and transporting it to a training grounds for ghosts in training.  The transport mission hits an asteroid field of sorts, and they enter a wormhole, which leads them to a quarantined Earth.  Cue story to get off of planet Earth, with Kitai going towards the broken off tail section, since Cypher was injured in the crash.  There are trust and parenting issues happening: Cypher hasn’t been around a lot because of his constant mission happening, and Kitai blames his father for a few things, one of which involves his older sister.

It’s probably that dynamic where the film succeeds the most, and if there were a stronger setup I would have given the film a pass based on that alone.  But this is Shyamalan, and expectations are low in general for a good film from him.  That said, those low expectations make this film kinda okay.  It’s better than his recent stuff, which is a step in the right direction.

It’s still not good though.  Maybe he’ll get better?

Someday?

[1] The normal thing to make in a Shyamalan movie is how everyone loses their ability to act.  I’m not going to do that here.  Will Smith is appropriately stoic (the whole ghosting thing, remember?), and Jaden Smith is the rebellious teenager.  Jaden still needs to find some range, but the acting was hardly the worst thing to come from this film.

Their Kung Fu is bad. My Kung Fu is good. You decide.

Well, nothing is said exactly like that, but that’s how Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) describes Kung Fu. At least his, and Kung Fu in general: use Kung Fu to make peace with everyone, including yourself. Kung Fu, in fact, is everything. Kung fu is the piece that drives this film, from the early encounters in which Dre (Jaden Smith) gets bullied, to the rousing tournament in the end, a well staged and executed sequence that utilizes various degrees of Kung Fu, all of it being very impressive.

I haven’t seen the remake in a long time, but this is essentially a point-by-point remake with a few changes: Kung Fu instead of karate, China instead of urban America, and Mr. Han (the Mr. Miyogi in the story) gets a back story. China is used quite well actually: some of the training occurs on the Great Wall, and the camera sweeping over it the first time is quite amazing. I also read somewhere that this is the second film ever to gain access to the Forbidden City, though we only get a wide shot and Dre playing drums on the rock climber inspired front door. A mountain is climbed where Mr. Han learned his Kung Fu, and that actually offers some of the best cinematography in the movie. Beijing is used quite well, both in the sanitized Olympic Village, and the messy residential area of narrow streets and hundreds of people in a single square mile.

Mr. Han’s back story works well actually, as it adds to the bond between himself and Dre: Dre lost his father at some point (I can’t remember if he died or just left), while Han lost his family (the car in the living room does make sense). Jackie Chan has become a more versatile actor in his old age: while he doesn’t move as he once did (though he still can kick some butt), his ability to give emotion and connect with everyone around him adds to his allure. This kind of role serves him much better than, say, The Spy Next Door or whatever that travesty was.

Jaden Smith as Dre, meanwhile, does what all 12-year-old kids do when they go to China unwillingly: be a brat. He does nothing to help his mom, he’s disrespectful all around, and he’s easily instigated, which doesn’t humble him the first or second time he gets picked on/gets beat up. He gets a Chinese girlfriend-ish person, though her character completely disappears in the third act (same with his mom, actually).

Then again, the third act is the tournament, so of course the focus is on that, but by then, we want Dre to win. He comes to terms with his rebellion, understanding Mr. Han, understanding life, understanding everything.

The movie is long (the second longest to Robin Hood actually this summer season), but for good reason. All of the characters get proper room to breathe and build. I cared about pretty much all of the characters (well, except for the bad guys, but they’re the ones you really do hate). How many summer movies – or wide release movies for that matter – can I say that about?

Not very many, it would seem. Enjoyable all around.

B+

Note: Jaden Smith is turning into his dad.  Note the sequence early on when Mr. Han swats a fly on the wall, or when Dre does some pop-locking for the Chinese girl.  Not sure if this is a good thing.