Summer movie season is often a tale of contrasts—big, sprawling tent pole blockbusters interspersed with small artsy alternatives for the grownups and non-fanboys. The Will Smith sci-fi flick After Earth and Joss Whedon's ultra-low-budget contemporary take on Much Ado About Nothing are case in point. The former represents, sadly, the worst of the sprawling summer blockbuster. We've seen it all before: spaceships, alien monsters, Avatar-esque foreign environs, apocalyptic devastation on Earth, a son trying to make his father proud, etc. —all set in a world so CGI-manufactured that you can almost smell the zeroes and ones.
The irony is that the futuristic Earth, set 1,000 years after humans abandoned the increasingly unlivable title planet, is a far more tired, old-fashioned, and boring film than Whedon's word-for-word rendering of a play originally written by Shakespeare in the sixteenth century.
Shot in just 12 days at Whedon's own L.A. home (on a budget about one hundredth the size of Earth), Much Ado is one of the better modern updates of a Bard classic. Filmed in black-and-white—an effect which at first seems arbitrary but ends up helping to keep the focus on what really matters in the film, the performances—Much Ado is a summer trifle as refreshing as the bubbly in ample supply at the Santa Monica-as-Messina estate of Governor Leonato (Clark Gregg).
Unlike some "Shakespeare for the modern world" films (which strain credulity in their attempts to justify a contemporary setting where Elizabethan language, cultural references, and themes make sense), Whedon opts for a more whimsical, ironic tone. In this slightly off-kilter world, wealthy Californians wear masks at summer soirees and double weddings are arranged on a whim. It's a world where J.Crew-clad yuppies talk of Cupid, "clods of wayward marl," and Ethiopes as often as they play music on their iPods, fist-bump friends and sip martinis in the infinity pool. Anachronisms are there, to be sure, but they are played so effortlessly and off-handedly—usually for laughs—as to not distract from the language itself, the real star.
Because language has changed so much since 1599, Shakespeare's words can often sound confounding to 21st century ears, for which any sentence longer than 140 characters increasingly proves stupefying. It falls to the actors to make it work. Thankfully Whedon's ensemble here—largely veterans of his T.V. shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity, Doll House)—are uniformly excellent, making Shakespearean language (all manner of cuckholds, knaves, haths, and didst thous) come alive in amusing ways.
As Beatrice, Amy Acker sinks her teeth into one of Shakespeare's most sharp-tongued female leads—a "harpy" whose elaborate one-liners make men like Benedick (Alexis Denisof) both fear and adore her. ("He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. He that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.") The quickness of verbal sparring and ping-pong dialogue in the hands of able actors is a wonder to behold. Take this exchange: Beatrice says, "I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have come." Benedick replies: "So you took pleasure in bringing me this message?"
It's as fast as an Aaron Sorkin script and as blink-or-you'll-miss-it funny as Arrested Development. Which is another way of saying: there is nothing new under the sun. Shakespeare really is the root of almost the entirety of modern entertainment.
When done as well as it is here—setting the language and performances free from too many distracting cinematic accouterments—Shakespeare on screen beats almost any other reinvention of age-old genres (in this case, the "romantic comedy"). It doesn't matter that the words and manner of speaking are vestiges of centuries long past. Language this beautiful, played with such joy and frivolity, has a power all its own. It's less about the themes themselves (familiar and universal as they are) as the concise, elegant manner in which they unfold. The play's the thing.
Language is also at the foreground of After Earth, though not in a good way. While it's very likely humans will talk differently in the far-distant future (see Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas for an amusing stab at it), the way people talk in Earth is just plain annoying. More perplexing than the accent (some kind of a hybrid between antebellum Tennessee and Madonna faux British) is the hyper-enunciated staccato of it all ("What. Do. You. Think. You. Should. Have. Done?"). Language has apparently devolved since humans left Earth to the point that every single word in a sentence must be called out in order to be comprehended. If 21st century people have a hard time processing the quick-wit-and-puns complexity of Shakespearian English, the residents of "Nova Prime" (where humans reside after Earth) would be utterly baffled.
It's curious, then, that several residents of Nova Prime seem to be reading Moby Dick—a reference which in a better film would have some measure of thematic significance. Not here.
After Earth, directed unceremoniously by M. Night Shyamalan (whose name was not used on any advertisements, a mark of his falling Hollywood stock), has a promising enough premise. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is an interplanetary war hero leading humanity's fight for survival in a new post-Earth era. When the Star Trek-style ship Cypher and his 13-year-old son Kitai (Jaden Smith, real-life son of Will) are traveling on crash-lands on quarantined Earth, the pair must fight to survive a planet where "everything has evolved to kill humans."
Sadly what could be a terrific adventure story gets bogged down with a bad script, bad acting (emotionless from Will, over-emotional from Jaden), and an excruciating heavy-handedness in dealing with the film's central message, hammered home ad nauseam both in the film's advertising tagline and plot: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." In the film, survival is directly tied to one's ability to purge oneself of fear (and if Will Smith is any indicator, most other emotions as well). The most vicious alien in the film—called the Ursa—literally preys on your fear. It can only see humans if they are afraid. If you have somehow managed to rid yourself of all fear, like Will Smith, you are invisible to the Ursa (this ability is called "ghosting").
The film's worldview is decidedly self-help in orientation and at times feels like another Battlefield Earth homage to Scientology, a belief system to which the Smith family has had ties. Earth seems to echo Scientology's call to gain control over one's emotions and purge oneself of the pesky things (fear, rage, troubling memories) that can keep us from reaching our full potential.
The problem with that is that it results in a humanity that is less human and a lot more robotic, which is more or less what Cypher is like in the film. Poor Kitai is a messy adolescent full of fear, hope, love, pride and angst. Too bad by the end of the film his father has conditioned him (audited him, perhaps?) to move past all of that.
Is fear really the enemy? Cypher goes so far as to say that fear is "not real. It's a product of our imagination." So the sweaty palms and goose bumps we humans get when we are scared is a choice? Does fear really not have a place in human flourishing?
The wisest man that ever lived said that "fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). Instead of something that leads us astray and stifles our potential, could it be that fear is an emotion that (among other things) cultivates a healthy humility and positions us rightly as vulnerable, rather than all conquering, beings in the cosmos?
If After Earth sees the complexity of human emotion as a liability, Much Ado celebrates it. For Shakespeare, the messiness and range of human drama (fear, love, jealousy, pride, melancholy and much more) is exactly what fuels art. Shakespeare intuited that audiences would respond most to stories that reflected, rather than idealized, their own experience of life. When in Whedon's film a wedding photographer (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis) points her camera at us, the audience, it is a statement of exactly this: that the drama of Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio and Hero is in some way our own. Art imitates life. All of life's a stage.
Both Whedon's Much Ado and Shyamalan's After Earth subvert the audience's sense of reality. The former supposes a world where contemporary Los Angelinos speak like Elizabethan thespians. The latter suggests that in the future, earth will be unlivable precisely because humanity couldn't get a handle on its destructive human-ness. While the latter is plausible, it doesn't make for a very resonant film.
Don't get me wrong, dystopia can be a thrilling and perceptive genre. But the best examples of "look what humankind has done to itself!" apocalyptic cinema are the ones ultimately rooted in makes humans human (see Children of Men or Never Let Me Go for recent examples). Cyborg-like humanity is far less interesting, especially when it is as humorless as it is in After Earth.
Much Ado is a splendid film precisely because it doesn't take itself too seriously; it's just a coterie of actors having a blast at a bona fide at-home table reading of a scrumptious, enduring text. After Earth has exactly the opposite problem. It takes itself far too seriously, burdening what might have been a thrilling father-son survival story by what amounts to (at best) didactic gobbledygook and (at worst) Scientology propaganda. Ultimately it is much more "ado about nothing" than Whedon's film, which manages—as Shakespeare's timeless tales often do—to end up being about nearly everything.
The Family Corner
Both After Earth and Much Ado About Nothing are rated PG-13. Earth is occasionally violent, featuring deaths of humans (nothing too graphic) and animals, but contains nothing else too objectionable. Much Ado earns its rating because of a few sex scenes (not explicit), some marijuana use and an abundance of alcohol.