After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan, 2013) – I watched this on a flight recently, letting the dread wash over me as I thought “well, shit, I guess it moves me closer to the goal of watching every movie released this year.” I hit “play,” and knew the horrible scale of my error — two hours before the credits revealed that this fecal mound was “based on a story by Will Smith.”
Did the man learn nothing from the burnouts of the 80s comic stars, like Eddie Murphy? Will, goddamn it, if you had an innate talent for story you would be famous for that. You do not. Here, you have belched out the tritest of father-son sci-fi tales, one that takes no advantage of the fact that it is sci-fi, apart from some “broken environment” drama that’s ripped from “The Day After Tomorrow.” From a movie by the “2012” guy! Come the fuck on!
Anyway: Will Smith plays Cypher Raige (I know, right?), a future warrior from a time (3013 or so?) when humanity is at war with an alien civilization that doesn’t appreciate the fact that these primates left their busted planet to colonize “Nova Prime,” which looks suspiciously like Utah. (Yes, humanity has named the next Earth “New Prime.” Joylessly, too. There’s not even any wit about the parts of civilization that got ported over. What’s the currency? Did they name the oceans after Led Zeppelin members? ) The aliens have deployed “Ursas,” genetically engineered blind monsters, to kill the humans. Because the Ursas are blind (why?), they hunt by smelling fear, and the best soldiers are the ones that purge themselves of fear.
There is, as you’d expect, plenty of fun psuedo-science about how fear works, and a Smith monologue about how “danger is real” but “fear is a choice” because it’s a just reaction to a possible outcome. Smith’s son, Kitai, is played lifelessly by Smith’s actual son, Jaden. The two of them bond by ignoring the fact that an Ursa once killed Kitai’s sister, and going on a training mission that ends with — hell, you guessed it, a crash landing on Earth. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” says Smith — an odd thing for the air and water of a planet to do, a millennium after the species has departed for Space Utah. But Earth now looks like Costa Rica and is populated by giant albums whom Kitai must fight as he searches for the help beacon that was broken off in the crash.
What follows is incredibly boring, given the set-up. Anyone who’s read a story of survival will know every beat of the story, from the unexpected loss of supplies to the rescue of an animal that WILL LATER RESCUE THE HERO to the hero conquering his fear, as every hero has done in everything. ever written.
Machete Kills (Robert Rodriguez, 2013) – In the beginning was the trailer, a faux advert placed at the start of 2007’s Rodriguez/Tarantino dual-movie splatterfest “Grindhouse.” That underrated epic (bias declaration: the first one I bought when I got a blu-ray) was filled out by five fake trailers, all but one of them by directors who weren’t otherwise involved in the product. Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” the 80-minute film that you had paid for, looked less fun than the slapped-together nonsense of “Machete.” “They fucked with the WRONG Mexican” was the most memorable line in three+ hours of screen filth. Wow, you said, if you were one of 500 or so people who paid to see this. That fake movie in which Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin team up to kill evil cops looks like a lot of fun.
And it was! “Machete” (2010) took the basic revenge-thriller elements of the trailer and grafted them onto a wonderfully dumb political allegory about a federale-turned-day-laborer who gets in between an underground alliance of illegals and a corrupt politician. “Machete Kills” leaves out the politics and replaces it with crazy bullshit — Machete (Trejo) is now hired by the president (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez) to track down a terrorist (Damien Bechir, who was nominated for an Oscar after a sensitive portrayal of an illegal immigrant father in Los Angeles) and… bring him back before a missile can be flown into Washington, or something. Double-and-triple crosses follow, culminating with a clash with a hitman who changes identities (Walton Goggins/Cuba Gooding Jr/Lady Gaga) and a cult leader/tech guru (Mel Gibson).
It’s all very stupid, which is fine — the first movie was stupid, too! But satire like this doesn’t mesh with Rodriguez’s style of directing or editing. The best recent piss-take on sleaze cinema was “Black Dynamite,” a film that copied all the flawed editing, ruined takes, bad acting and Latin Mass pacing of the genre. Rodriguez has made a Mexploitation film that paces itself like the latest Jason Statham contract-fulfiller, all CGI blood and predictable explosions. It’s got its moment, but manages to feel both quick and boring — quite a feat.
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) — Damn, I wanted to love this. Matthew McConaughey, who’s been distractingly good in a series of southern gothic films (“Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “Mud”), gets the role that’s clearly drawn to give him an Oscar. He plays Ron Woodruff, a straight man with AIDS who became a meds-smuggler and started the eponymous club, who was described as “wiry as octotillo.” McConaughey, who has never been wiry, pulls off the transformation by losing tons of weight, tying pale jeans with a belt that’s down to its last hole, and hanging a porn-star mustache off a skeletal face. It’s impressive, almost as much as Jared Leto in make-up and a series of wigs as McConaughey’s transgender business partner.
But, eh, it’s so formulaic, so easy.