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Schmaltzy Sci-Fi Hits Summer Screens
Published on June 4, 2013 by guest author: Annalisa Parent

OK, I'll admit it. I'm that annoying person you go to the movies with - not the one who talks through the whole thing or whose cell phone rings. I'm the one who always knows the plot before it happens. 

Last night I went to the drive-in. (Yes, we still have a drive-in, and it's a thriving business in our Vermont summers.) What I like about the drive-in, among other things, is that it offers you the chance to see a double feature (for those of you who weren't teenagers in the 1950s' height of drive-in popularity, that's “two movies in a row, Dawg.”) 

Sometimes it happens that the two movies you want to see fall in the same time slot, and so last night instead of watching Iron Man 3 as I’d hoped (perfect drive-in fodder, by the way), my friend and I watched M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth. Yeah, I said M. Night Shyamalan. Are you as surprised as we were that he's even affiliated with the film? It’s probably because all of the billing has been about Will Smith and his son Jaden who feature in the film, with nary a mention of this famous director. 

It’s almost as if Shyamalan’s not a part of the family. (Mostly because he isn’t.) To be sure, this film is a family affair. Smith wrote the screenplay. His wife Jada produced. And his son starred. 

Full disclosure: Will Smith is one of my favorite celebrities. For someone who doesn't have cable or read celebrity magazines, I know a lot about (and deeply respect) Will Smith and his family: Will's rap is clean but sincere (remember his rap?); he is extremely intelligent (though the rumor about him turning down a scholarship to MIT to follow his dream is, apparently, false) and he is deeply committed to family. (I read once that he and Jada have a pledge to get up for the other in the middle of the night to help with creative projects.) 

But that commitment to family is, as I see it, exactly the problem with this film. First, to return to my original point, the plot was extremely predictable - to the extent that it’s not even worth citing details. I've seen that movie so many times (and I am not a huge watcher of science fiction) that I timed my bathroom break so I wouldn't have to live through the anxiety of the build up to the climax - a scene where the big bad alien would chase down a young boy who would have to face his foe single-handedly, all alone, and with no fear. Sound familiar? Yeah, you've seen that movie a thousand times too, right? 

So the real question for me is: Why would the intelligent, successful Will Smith create such predictable, cliche garbage? It seems clear to me this was a venue for him, in his love of family, to put his son first. (To the point that Will’s character was physically debilitated in the film, forcing Jaden - literally - into action.) This film was about ensuring the future success of Jaden Smith, pure and simple. Any dad would do it, and many Hollywood dads have done it before. 

I don't begrudge Will that, but I do begrudge him the artistic quality of the film. He is capable of so much more, and this film was a plot flop. 

Which brings me back to M. Night Shyamalan. I can count on one hand (which is also cliche) the number of movies that have had me in absolute awe because I was surprised at the outcome: The Village and The Sixth Sense. Right. Both M. Night Shyamalan films. Now, look, I'm no great cinephile. I don't follow the careers of stars or directors or have an RSS feed to IMDb. I just appreciate good art when I see it. And those were good films. The Village was billed as a horror film, but was a deep, thoughtful sociological analysis on the futility of utopias. And when the secret of The Sixth Sense was revealed, (no spoilers) I am sure I let out a gasp of some kind. Because not knowing the plot twist 15 minutes into a film or 25 pages into a book so rarely happens to me. But Shyamalan's done it twice. And then he directed this plot flop, this cliche, this son launcher. Boo. 

The plot situation was not made any better with the second film (remember the double feature?): Star Trek: Into Darkness. Twenty minutes into it, I could see where we were headed, I knew the plot twist, and I foretold the resolution. (Honest, ask my friend who, thank-you-very-much, I did have the courtesy to ask if he wanted to know what was going to happen.)  No, I am not one of those "trekkies" who follows the series and the movies and who can speak in Klingon. I am just saying it was poor, predictable plotting. 

So, what is the solution to this dilemma for American cinema? (Because I'll admit I've turned to foreign films to get my fix of plot complexity, dynamic characters, and a world that, much like the one we actually live in, protagonists actually die and fail.) 

I don't think I am going to fix the over-romanticism of Hollywood, because, let's face it, it sells. But I am saying I would like to enjoy a complex film with dynamic plot twists and characters. I believe M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith, and, at times, even Star Trek, have proven themselves capable of that kind of art, and I hope to see more of that ilk in the future, versus the schmaltzy nepostism of After Earth or the blatant predictability of Star Trek: Into Darkness. 

Do you think Hollywood will listen to a lowly English teacher/writer from Vermont? Doubtful. I have hopes for the American film industry, but where will it head in the future? I cannot predict. 

Annalisa Parent is a teacher and freelance writer living in Vermont.

Previous Posts By This Author: Laundry, Art and Spirituality

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