I’m making a point of posting on films that I neglected to earlier in the year, both good and bad. 2013 featured a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction films, demonstrating what can happen after the end of the world. Technically, this is a contradiction, as by definition there cannot be anything afterwards. This has not stopped “post-apocalyptic” being a genre for decades and the subject of many academic studies. Perhaps it is a misnomer, but “post-apocalyptic” is a recognised generic term which has provided such cinematic offerings as The Road (John Hillcoat, 2006), The Book of Eli (the Hughes Brothers, 2006) Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995) and The Postman (Kevin Costner, 1997). 2013 saw several contributions to the genre, each with their own take on the surprising amount of stuff that happens after the end of the world.
I did not see Elysium, partly because all reports were of disappointment from Neill Blomkamp after the blistering District 9, but also because the previous post-apocalyptic adventures failed to inspire me. Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) offers a standard end-of-the-world scenario – alien invaders bombarded the Earth and left it uninhabitable. Only plucky survivors remain, in this case drone maintenance repair team Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Harper (Andrea Riseborough), and their contact with the evacuees, Sally (Melissa Leo). The film’s production design is convincingly futuristic, sleek and cool. The design includes the comfortable and efficient house-on-mile-high-stilts that the Harpers occupy, a perfect home of the future complete with transparent swimming pool and landing pad for bubble-ship, one of many super cool elements in the film. As one viewer described it, Oblivion shows us the future as designed by Apple, and the sleek surfaces of touchscreens and control panels, drones, house and bubble ship all suggest the synchronism of comfort and efficiency. These are not just technological devices for use, but for pleasure in their use.
Oblivion’s production design also presents a suitably blasted Earth, Iceland providing some spectacular scenery from which the wreckage of the Empire State Building and other structures project like battered skeletons. A buried library provides both a melancholy echo of a lost civilisation and a sinister location for an action set piece, and a multi-levelled underground bunker is a convincing headquarters for a band of freedom fighters. And by way of further contrast, an idyllic valley, untouched by the forces that ravaged the rest of the planet, features trees, a lake and a wooden cabin filled with memorabilia of the past; a refuge for Jack away from high technology and barren landscapes.
The combined effect of this design is to create a palpable possible world, an essential element in future-set science fiction. The production design is the most effective aspect of Oblivion, as it provides this persuasive and involving vision of the future. Post-apocalyptic visions need an element of grimness, due to the extensive death that will have occurred, and the landscape of Iceland provides a suitably sombre setting. However, where Oblivion loses its way is in its exploration of more interesting themes. There comes a point when a major plot point is revealed that proves an effective surprise, and I wanted the film to explore this in more detail, perhaps as a more action-heavy version of Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). Unfortunately, this was not the case, and Oblivion failed to explore issues of identity and humanity in favour of just having stuff blow up. I have no problem with stuff blowing up, but action set pieces and philosophical themes are in no way mutually exclusive – just look at any blockbuster by James Cameron or Christopher Nolan. Writer-director Joseph Kosinski included an interesting idea, but then largely abandoned it, making the film an overall disappointment.
Oblivion has its problems, but it is a masterpiece compared to the worst film I saw in 2013 – After Earth. M. Night Shyamalan showed such promise at the turn of the century, as The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and (most of) Signs (2002) demonstrated intelligent, careful, precise filmmaking. The Village had some great moments and a (literally) jaw-dropping twist, but The Happening (2008) proved a tipping point (I’m yet to see Lady in the Water ). As a director, Shyamalan makes great use of atmosphere, location, camera and sound, ratcheting up tension with the best of them. But this can only distract so far from a nonsensical plot that defuses the tension entirely. The plants are angry? Quick, run away from the wind! I have no problem with films being silly – several Marvel productions are preposterous – but if you’re going to be silly have some fun with it. Shyamalan is not funny, and when a film features a daft central premise it only works if delivered with a sense of humour, severely lacking in anything by this director.
This lack of humour is not only apparent but actually the point in After Earth, which makes The Happening look like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). It may not be fair to blame Shyamalan for After Earth’s weaknesses, as the story is credited to Will Smith, but I’m going to blame him anyway, because he co-wrote the screenplay and, more significantly, I’ve seen what he can do and it is crushingly disappointing to see this talent neglected. After Earth revolves around the premise of Rangers, elite soldiers who protect the human race against an undefined foe, being able to ‘ghost’, making themselves invisible to Ursas, creatures created to hunt them. The way in which Rangers ghost is to suppress emotion, mainly fear, which the Ursas can smell. Apparently adrenaline and sweat are not the issue, it is emotion that makes us vulnerable. Consequently, our young hero Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) must learn to be as cold as his father Cypher (Will Smith) in order to survive after their ship crashes.
This premise has promise and might have made for an interesting film in another context, perhaps similar to a previous Smithonian (see what I did there?) sci-fi appearance, I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007). But the crash-landing on a planet that turns out to be Earth overwhelms the promising premise, because the film loses focus as it becomes overburdened with trimmings that distract from the central idea. Cypher and Kitai are on Earth, which the human race abandoned due to pollution and over-population, according to Kitai’s opening voiceover. Could this be an environmental film in the vein of Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)? No, because that idea does not reappear. Worse, nothing is made of the fact that they crash on Earth, frankly it could be any hostile planet, unlike Oblivion, which makes a point of Earth of being a memory (and a future) worth fighting for. Therefore, it makes no difference or sense to have the bulk of After Earth’s action take place on Earth, aside from giving the title a weight that the film as a whole lacks. The science makes absolutely no sense, as, according to Cypher, everything on Earth has ‘evolved to hunt humans’, a remarkable achievement seeing as humans abandoned the planet 1000 years ago. What were the animals evolving in response to? Every night Earth’s temperature drops to below freezing and ice coats everything. So why is the planet covered in tropical rainforest? I can forgive plenty of cod science (yes, Star Trek Into Darkness, I mean you), but internal contradictions like tropical environment that goes polar overnight is jarring and annoying. Not as jarring and annoying, however, as a giant bird of prey that suddenly abandons its need for food and sacrifices itself for the main character, purely for plot reasons. Perhaps more could have been made of this development by having Kitai and the bird develop some form of relationship, like Cody and the eagle Marahute in The Rescuers Down Under (Hendel Butoy, Mike Gabriel, 1990), but instead, it’s just a random episode with no further impact.
I tend to focus on concepts and premises, thematic content and how convincingly it is expressed through cinematic means. Normal people like character and plot, and After Earth has problems there as well. The Raige family are hardly harmonious because Cypher is always working, always emotionless and therefore a distant father and husband, while Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death. A moving portrait of a father and son learning to communicate again, perhaps like Real Steel (Shawn Levy, 2011)? No, because Kitai has to become like Cypher to survive, i.e. cold and distant, and Cypher is right to be that way so must not rediscover his humanity. Perhaps this could be challenged by Kitai, who learns to balance his humanity with survival, or even raise questions like one of the year’s unexpected delights, Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013). No, because every time an idea like this is raised, it is abandoned just as quickly, giving the characters no arc of development other than the survival story.
None of this would matter if the survival story was actually dramatic, but Shyamlan fails to inject energy or any major sense of threat beyond individual set pieces. Kitai fleeing a horde of ferocious baboons is fine, as is his scrapping with a sabre-tooth cat, but his encounters with the Ursa are lifeless and dull, mainly because the goal of these battles is for Kitai to become inert and dull. My response to the film consisted of a series of ‘Yes, but what about, oh never mind’; ‘That looks interesting can we go back to, oh never mind’; ‘Why aren’t we dealing with, oh never mind’. Overall, I wish no one had minded enough to make it in the first place. Easily, the turkey of the year.