Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Fear and Digital Expressionism In AFTER EARTH

Fear is not an alien theme in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. The auteur has explored fear of the intangible and tangible, the fear of chaos and the fear of complacency. In After Earth, Night brings fear to the forefront. What was originally conceived as a modern day-set vehicle for Will and Jaden Smith to star as a father and son stranded in the wilderness of Alaska, later turned into a high-concept, big budget science fiction film set on a "post-human" Earth. Smith Sr., serving as producer, was allegedly very involved in the screenwriting process and writer Gary Whitta was integrated into the pre-production by Smith himself who was impressed with his work on 2009‘s The Book of Eli. With Night being brought onto the project later on as director/writer the deviations between Night‘s more authorial works and After Earth can be felt, but only to a lesser extent as both the core father-son relationship and the personal journey Smith Jr.‘s Kitai undergoes during his near-suicide mission brush very close to what Night had been working with in his career up to that point. The way the narrative plays out feels more procedural and traditionally structured than Night usually lets on in his stories, but as with each of his succeeding films the development of previously gestured thematics is there. The film‘s title refers to a world that rejected the humanity that occupied it and has now become overgrown with dangerous wildlife. This calls back to The Happening‘s preoccupation with nature turning against us, albeit from a different angle, and The Village‘s community of people returning to a "simpler" life, as Kitai is challenged to work with broken tools and to live in coercion with the dangers of the natural world. The theme of regaining a purpose or "life“ in correlation with regaining a touch with nature has been touched upon countless of times in art, yet one unsettlingly feels it become frequently more relatable as a fantasy and as escapism than a reflection of reality, so setting the story of After Earth as a coming-of-age narrative potentially awards it further nuance. In this context Smith Jr.‘s Kitai is an apt continuation of The Last Airbender‘s Aang.

Yet another youngster forced to bear the burden of adults on his shoulder‘s (now with more external angst), Jaden‘s performance is brimming with emotion and earnesty. Night is aware enough of the young actor‘s strengths to know that letting his expressive eyes magnetize the attention in-frame is the strongest play because, arguably, he has made a Hollywood career out of relaying focus on his actors‘ strengths in the editing room. If previous performances hadn't convinced, Smith Sr. proves his charisma isn‘t reliant on movement or facial (all-caps) expression, but blinding confidence and aura as the screenplay has him trapped in a single location for the majority of the runtime. One‘s minds wanders towards his heavy and stern delivery of a speech Cypher makes to his son... "fear is a choice"... Smith is a pure movie star, able to embed the blunt dialogue that could be taken directly out of an AA pocket-manifesto with unpretentious dramatic flair and nuance. Cypher is a man without fear of the external and, by extension, a man who shuns emotion rooted in fear, but Smith‘s pauses and glances subtly ground him in humanity.

In retrospect, Cypher doesn't really serve a mentorial role to Kitai aside from his speech as much as that of an obstacle in Kita‘s mind. The father-son relationship is built around Kitai‘s feelings of inadequacy next to his fearless father, as he aims to prove to Cypher that he can overcome his demons like Cypher did his. He ends up succeeding not by consciously emulating or avoiding his father‘s triumphs, but by disobeying him. Kitai progresses to inner peace by interacting the antagonistic flora of Earth in his way. "He‘s a feeling boy" his mother says of him to Cypher, echoing both Prince Zuko‘s relationship with his father and his troubled emotional state ("He says I‘m like my mother") in Night‘s previous film The Last Airbender and like many of Night‘s prior protagonists Kitai succeeds in gaining control by letting his previously suppressed feelings flow outwards, he makes the decision to not let his traumatic past determine or immobilize his potential in the now. Only when he realizes fear is the one thing holding him back, not inadequacy, can he overcome the alien predator that caused him the trauma in the first place.

Giving credit where it is due, supporting players James Newton Howard (Night‘s go-to composer) and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky are invaluable to the emotional mise en scène of the narrative. Howard‘s previous collaboration with Night on The Last Airbender was a masterpiece, and while his score for After Earth doesn't reach those heights it weaves an unmissable tapestry around essential moments for highlighting (the magic a simple piano theme can work on otherwise silent moments...). The way Suschitzky captures the interiors of the utopian science fiction capitol world feels eerily similar to Janusz Kaminsky‘s work on Spielberg‘s A.I. with the illumination of grays and browns subtly reflecting on the faces of the protagonists while rendering the threshold between the practical and green screen sets close to invisible. Once the narrative reaches Earth these illuminations are scaled back and the green forest landscapes, the blue skies and occasional brushstrokes of white take over. Only when the screenplay pits Kitai against the CGI omen that haunts his memories does the color pallet revert back to the gray, with volcanic ashes overwhelming the frame around the young cadet and colliding his internal anxieties with his external ones. It‘s as classically expressionistic as modern blockbusters get.

But all things considered After Earth is a tentpole blockbuster only in budget and occasional scale. What Shyamalan, Whitta and the Smiths made is a coming-of-age action film more reminiscent of Rossellini‘s Journey To Italy and Malick‘s The New World than the modern blockbuster template, albeit in the now more frequently seen post-Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones way. However unlikely, if After Earth ends up Night‘s last big-budgeted film in the current cycle of blockbuster cinema, it‘s an exemplary one.

Monday, December 19, 2016

On the "Flawed“ Beauty Of THE LAST AIRBENDER

"There are reasons each of us are born, we have to find those reasons"

Cited by many as the artistic low-point of his career, M. Night Shyamalan‘s commensurate of Orson Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons and in certain context, perhaps Joel Schumacher‘s 2004 adaptation of Webber‘s Phantom of the Opera, The Last Airbender is an innately "flawed“ and beautiful picture.

Attempting to simultaneously juggle adapting material made by another artist (or in this case, artists) and tackling high-concept fantasy world-building with a $100 million dollar budget for the first time in his professional career, Night took his time in finding what he deemed the right project for him to enter the Hollywood blockbuster machine, rejecting advances from Warner Bros to make a Harry Potter film when the franchise was still young before settling on adapting the Nickelodeon cartoon show Avatar: The Last Airbender for Paramount pictures. Incidentally the adaptation itself  (along with its loose commitment to conventional plot structure) is one many fans of the show seem to take issue with when handing out the now fairly overwhelming critiques on the film stating that Night "didn't get" what made the show good, which should sound eerily reminiscent to criticisms George Lucas received for his authorial work on the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

By comparison, the dialogue here has a less theatrical delivery to it than in Lucas‘ space-opera epics, with Night relying on his usually "straight“ and weighty style of dialogue-direction and writing. While I favor this as Night casually asserting his own style onto the commonly more "bookish“ or lyrical dialogue in the wildly popular teenage fantasy genre, the bafflement many have with this potentially jarring departure from what is now considered the norm is understandable. Meanwhile the consistency of the performances delivering these lines (the younger actors especially) suffers from the alleged forced edits  and reshoots Paramount mandated upon Night once the decision was made to convert the film to 3D. Nicola Peltz and Noah Ringer’s performances are earnest and in-tune enough to sustain the supposed tonal cohesion whenever they’re on screen, and most of the supporting players’ strength retained but the jarring editing inconsistency, while never detracting from the visual narrative, frustratingly undercuts their potential.

„It‘s time we show the fire nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs“

Yet despite these struggles the strong emotional undercurrent is barely ever lost.
By and large, Night‘s oeuvre deals with both personal and wider-scale tragedy, to which Airbender is no exception. Similarly to The Sixth Sense‘s Cole and later After Earth‘s Kitai, Aang is forced to come face to face with the consequences of a life-altering trauma while also taking upon himself adult responsibilities...

In the world of The Last Airbender, children, born into a repressed/oppressed world (literally and personally) are being delegated to consciously carry the weight of the world while we oppose each other in the name of self-interest. Night doesn't linger on the why or the how it came to this (a more prominent theme in the second season of the television show), but he shows us a representational *who* through Fire nation general Zhao, a man entrusted trusted by Fire-Lord Ozai with leadership in the current colonialist occupation of the Earth Nation. Zhao, in a key moment, takes a stand against the spiritual in favor of control/the material and while he eventually pays the price for it, and while observing Night‘s oeuvre might suggest otherwise (the film critic in 2006‘s Lady in the Water finds a rather unfortunate fate in a similar situation) it doesn't feel like Night is outwardly criticizing materialism over the immaterial, showing sympathy for a kindly monk who makes a choice that ends up costing Aang his freedom, in exchange for money (the monk rationalizes the betrayal by blaming the Avatar‘s 100-year absence for his poor condition, further increasing the mounting pressure on the young airbender‘s shoulders).

„It was not by chance that for generations people have been searching for him and now you have found him. Your destinies are tied Zuko“

The other half of this equation is Dev Patel‘s Prince Zuko. The banished prince seeking to regain his honor by finding and capturing the Avatar with aid from his uncle Iroh, a humble and kindly general within the fire nation ranks. Their relationship is the most important one to divert attention to in the film, with their conversations concurrently mirroring Aang and Katara‘s brief and gestural relationship, with the latter taking on a matriarchal role, and with Iroh relaying to Zuko (and later on in the film, to our heroes as well) some of the key wisdoms that echo throughout the television show and (not so) incidentally Night‘s filmography as well. These are tried and told philosophies of humility, taking personal responsibility and agency/choice but Night concludes all of them in such exquisite and heartfelt visual moments (the revival of the Moon Spirit is one of Night‘s career highlights) that it never wears on the film.


"You stand alone. And that has always been your great mistake“

Zuko himself receives a minor personal growth near the end as well (albeit major one thematically) through his uncle‘s guidance, opting to turn his back on the aggression and violence that his dictatorioal father (who permanently scarred his face) and his current current regime adheres. His decision does not seem permanent at that time, but it‘s a small victory nontheless.
Iroh himself remains illusive as a character throughout most of the running time but Night leaves in a minor piece of info on the aging mentor that gives the imagination plenty to work with at least until the still scheduled sequel releases. Much like Ben Kenobi in Lucas‘ Star Wars (1977) he‘s primarily here to inspire.

And as Iroh inspires the central characters, Aang returns the favor multiplied.

"Water teaches us acceptance, let your emotions flow like water“

In the film's climactic breaths, the apex of Night‘s intentions as an artist and his visual flair come together, with Ringer‘s Aang unleashing his potential power as the Avatar by confronting the horrors and guilt from his past and surrendering the ocean itself to his command (The longer creativity is suppressed, the bigger the consequences when it is released). The act causes the colonialist fire nation to retreat their forces, but on its own that is merely plot contrivance. Night focuses on the awestruck faces of the adults previously caught up in their cyclical violent conflict witnessing the act, being reminded of the capability for raw and sincere expression (and imagination) a child can have when we give them our attention and our support. The children are the future. The children are the avatars of our hope. We must do better, if not for ourselves, then for them...

Furthermore, when reading the bending of the elements as allegorical for artistic expression, The Last Airbender is as much a spiritual sequel to Night‘s Lady in the Water as it is an adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon show. Night's narratives always seem to come down to its protagonists giving each other support to achieve reconciliations with their personal pasts and present selves (Peltz's Katara pleads to Aang "don't give up, we can do this together" and later embraces him in key moments).
To further assert my belief in Night as a storyteller, the abbreviations that set it apart from films that tackle similar themes is not only found in Night‘s usually beautiful compositions (gorgeous close-ups, slow tracking shots capturing the details of the spaces he devotes to the action + characters) and sentimental tendencies, but also his devotion to crafting a storybook that‘s truly for children in a somewhat post-Harry Potter cinematic landscape. He juxtaposes and weaves together ingredients of wuxia, dancing, eastern philosophies and elemental magic in a way that while not entirely set apart from the first season of the show he adapts the material from, ends up feeling like a singular, unique cinematic experience... few movies outside Night‘s own oevure (and even so) compare to it.

"He will begin to change hearts, and it is in the heart that all wars are won.“

Yet as much as I appreciate and champion the film as it was released, I can also sympathise with the current negative consensus on it both in the film-community and among general audiences. Night's consistently strong scene construction is abruptly undercut by a lack of plot cohesion, with screentime devoted to key supporting characters and their stories being sadly uneven. The aforementioned structural looseness is also a due to lack of adherence to the standardized template set by successful Hollywood blockbusters, reminiscing more the avant-blockbuster cocktail of Lucas' The Phantom Menace.

Somewhat reassuringly, people shifting their blaming for these qualities towards the studio interference has been a recent change of pace in the discussion surrounding it, with some claiming to be from behind the scenes of the production coming out and removing most of the negatives from Night himself, while placing them on Paramount Studios‘ demand for reshoots and further cuts after realizing a 3D conversion would cost them too much money with the material they had when Night had made his final cut (removing up to 25 minutes of the runtime). Though i would have liked for Paramount to have released Night‘s cut initially, I selfishly wouldn't trade that for what we ended up with either because upon reflection, the film would lose the circumstantial potential as the powerful meta statement both on belief and against cynicism it ends up procreating.

The Last Airbender offers sincerity, beauty and potential catharsis in exchange for such belief, for as with all his films Night is asking us to take a leap of faith, to believe in human connection, to believe in the potential love we all possess as a uniting force in a troubled world... and in the case of The Last Airbender, to also believe in something "flawed"...