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From the moment I saw the early trailers for this film, I was intrigued. The idea seemed interesting enough and Will Smith is in it! How could that not be an engaging film? You may have caught the M. Night Shyamalan feature I wrote several days ago on whether or not this film would be his comeback. While the general consensus seems to be a resounding ‘no’, I would like to offer a view that isn’t so black-and-white. Before I do though, let’s get into what this film is about.
Legendary military leader Cypher Raige (Will Smith), and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) are traveling on an interplanetary mission when the ship they are traveling on is severely damaged and they are forced to crash land on a post-apocalyptic Earth that has been devoid of all human life for 1000 years. Young Kitai must now embark on a character-defining quest to ensure the survival of himself and his father in a hostile environment.
Relatively straightforward idea. Is this a good or a bad thing? There are those who believe that the story was too simple. I however, think that the simplicity of the film’s story is a strength. There are many (very good and not as good) sci-fi flicks where the stories can be a bit convoluted, which is not a bad thing necessarily. It just means you have to really be paying attention. In this picture, the simplicity of the story doesn’t necessarily mean it is dumb or that it doesn’t have anything to say about the themes it presents. The lack of a story with lots of pieces and people to keep track of is actually refreshing and leaves more space for the analysis of the father-son relationship and the coming of age/rites of passage aspects of the film.
Contrary to what’s been said of Jaden’s ability to essentially carry this picture, he does well enough in his second starring role. If you’ve seen the Karate Kid remake, you will note that the younger Smith actually can act and does have the ability to make you feel. It seems appropriate that we see him play a character a little older than Dre Parker (from Karate Kid) and dealing with much more complex struggles internally, which he is able to convey to the audience. He has a particularly strong emotional scene, which shows his growth as an actor and reminds us that he can hold his own. He is Will Smith’s son after all.
Speaking of Will, he plays a different kind of character in a very different way than we are used to seeing from him. Historically his characters, with the exception of Ben Thomas from Seven Pounds, have been infused with Will’s trademark wit and have been allowed space to let loose a bit. That is not the case with Cypher Raige, who is really tough-as-nails and shows pockets of emotion. I think it’s always interesting to see actors try new things and this certainly was a new space for Will to occupy, particularly being confined to a more supporting role. Still he provides solid support for Jaden to play off of.
Visually the film isn’t particularly striking per se, but it is distinct and in a blockbuster summer movie season of more than a few post-apocalyptic pictures, its great to be distinct. That said, some of the films CG elements weren’t consistent, which really isn’t too much of an issue until we see some of the evolved creatures. The visual effects were on par with what you might find in any sci-fi flick, but other aspects could have been better executed.
I’m still on the fence about this film’s pacing. While there were times where I felt that long spaces and pauses before a cut were right in line with the tone of a certain scene, I also felt that at maybe two or three points in the film that tighter editing would have been beneficial. Also following the third act, the film’s resolution is wrapped up a bit too quick for me. A 100 minute run time is fine, but adding another 20 minutes would have allowed more breathing room for us to see how the intense events have strengthened the bond between father and son.
At the end of the day, this film is a commentary on the intricately complex nature of the father-son relationship. It’s about parents teaching their children about how to conduct themselves and then learning to let go and hope their lessons kick in when most needed. It’s about children seeking the approval of parents and desperately wanting to be accepted and respected in their own abilities. It’s about the internal struggles both parents and children face and how that sometimes plays out in their relationship with one another. We can never know all of the pieces and situations that make up the dynamic between Kitai and his dad, but the film suggests a range of those pieces, which is all it can do.
As I suspected, this film does not reach the heights of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, but it is a better film than The Last Airbender. So it isn’t quite the grand comeback for Shyamalan, but it sends him on a steadily climbing path. The film hits all the right beats for a popcorn summer action flick and is actually better than what many of the critics are saying. I suggest taking a look for yourself and perhaps take your dad as a nice early Father’s day treat. It should make for a good conversation starter.