So now that both Lady Geek Girl and I have reviewed the trailer for this movie (here and here), I figured I’d subject myself to it, because why the hell not? As it turns out, “why the hell not” seems to be the driving motivation behind just about every scene in the movie, so yeah, why the hell not? I can’t say that I had that many high expectations for this film, and so I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Sometimes, I was remarkably surprised at hints of, dare I say, good writing. Other times, I was torn between laughing and cursing at myself for paying to go see this thing.
Obviously, there are going to be spoilers in this post. But before we begin, M. Night Shyamalan likes to work with twist endings. Some of you may be asking yourself what the twist is for this movie. Lady Geek Girl speculates that it’s that the movie takes place in a utopia where The Last Airbender movie didn’t suck.
The twist is that there is no twist. There’s some fear monster that Jaden Smith is terrified of, but at the climatic ending, he learns how to not be afraid of it. At just that right moment. He and Jamie from Rise of the Guardians seem to have a lot in common in that regard, except that Jamie wasn’t an annoying caricature.
So our story begins with an exposition bomb. We’re given the explanation that one-thousand years ago our generation continued being the environment-hating douchebags Hollywood likes to make us out to be, because we have to have that political message in there somewhere—because why not?—and all of the humans had to evacuate planet Earth. On their new planet—Nova Prime, I think they call it, because why not?—they came across aliens who hate humans—because why not?—and want to eradicate the humans—because why not? In order to do this, they unleashed these monsters called Ursa. Ursas are blind, but they can smell fear, and they like to stab people to death and then stick their corpses on trees in a fashion reminiscent of 300, in order to provoke more fear.
Now, one thousand years in the future, in which there is apparently no such thing as interior design, the Ursa are still a problem. In order to combat the Ursa, people have learned a trick called ghosting, in which they rid themselves of fear, making it easy to kill the Ursa instead. Jaden Smith’s character is training to be a ranger, someone who ghosts, like his father. However, though Jaden is academically a godsend to the rangers and very adapt physically, he’s terrible at acting ghosting. Jaden’s melodrama comes about from his strained relationship with his father. When he was young, an Ursa killed his older sister, and Will’s character blames both himself and Jaden for being unable to save her. Yes, Will also blames Jaden, because at the age of five-ish, he should’ve been able to protect his older sister—a trained ranger—from the big scary monster the size of a pickup truck.
Good job, Will.
Will’s wife exists for the sole purpose of telling Will that Jaden needs a father and not a commanding officer, because since our characters are military, they’re all hardasses who don’t know how to express emotions. They also don’t know how to salute properly, for that matter. Will, realizing what a shit father he is, decides to take Jaden with him to another planet. On the transport ship is a contained Ursa that the rangers are going to use for practice. Unfortunately, the ship runs into an asteroid belt and then crashes on Earth, breaking in half and killing everyone but Will, Jaden, and the Ursa in the process.
Will has broken both his legs, and so Jaden must make his way on foot to the other half of the ship over one-hundred kilometers away to find a distress beacon, all the while facing the dangers of a biologically impossible ecosystem—good job, our generation, for fucking the world up with exhaust—and the Ursa hunting him down.
In some ways, I’d say this story is better than some of Shyamalan’s previous failures, but that might be because Will Smith pitched the idea for it. Regardless, this is still really bad in so many ways. I have to wonder who keeps thinking it’s a good idea to let Shyamalan direct things. Here’s a big problem right away: other than the Ursa and creatures on Earth evolving well beyond what they could have evolved into in one thousand years—let alone on a planet-wide scale, because screw you, science—the entire backstory does nothing. Like, okay, everyone left Earth and now aliens want to kill us. What about it? Who are these aliens? There seems to be an intergalactic war going on, and yet the story’s stuck with some father-son melodrama completely removed from the situation outside one Ursa. If the Ursa was just a big scary monster from Earth and not an alien, it would change nothing.
In terms of representation, it’s not often that science fictions stars people of color, so there’s that. In terms of female representation, the movie’s really bad. The mother exists for the purpose of mothering, and the sister existed to die and cause drama. That’s it. There are no other spoken female parts.
Furthermore, Jaden’s character is obnoxious. I literally cannot stand him. I know he’s a young, up-and-coming ranger, and still being a child for the most part, yeah, I can understand his inability to overcome fear. I can also understand living in his father’s shadow, as Will is basically the best ranger in existence. That said, watching him freak out every two minutes got old really fast. It kept reminding me of The Last Airbender, in which Aang, for some reason, has to overcome his fear in order to bend water, but he’s held back by his failure to protect the other Airbenders. Jaden needs to overcome his fear, but he’s held back by his failure to protect his plot device sister, until the final confrontation with the Ursa—because why not?
Speaking of things happening for the sake of happening, at one point, Jaden gets abducted by a giant eagle. While in its nest with its chicks—he’s probably dinner—the eagles get attacked by ligers or some catlike things. He tries to protect the chicks from the ligers, fails, and the mother eagle morns. She then later gives her life to save his—because why not? Then, that point is dropped. Just like that. It could have been cut entirely from the whole movie and nothing would have been lost.
My only other point that I can be bothered to remember right now is that the movie also likes to play with parallels and really obvious attempts at foreshadowing. For example, Jaden doesn’t have his father’s respect in the beginning. Before going on the transport ship, another ranger who’s lost his leg in our unimportant war wants to show his respect to Will by standing up on his other leg and saluting him—because in the future, we have shitty wheelchairs and no prosthetic limbs, because why not? Then, at the end of the movie, Will has both his broken legs, yet he wants to stand up and salute Jaden out of respect.
It really doesn’t take a lot to figure out what’s going to happen in this movie. Once you understand the setup, everything else just falls into place. The characters are rather clichéd, as well as the plot. So unless you want to watch Jaden looking terrified and Will Smith bleeding internally and otherwise doing nothing for eighty minutes, I’d see something else. Epic was good. Go spend your money on that.