Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) Series Primer

“Danger hides in the stars. This is the world of Jason of Star Command, a space age soldier of fortune determine to stop the most sinister force in the universe: Dragos, master of the cosmos.  Aiding Jason in his battle against evil is a talented team of experts, all working together in a secret section of the Space Academy.”

-Opening narration to Jason of Star Command (1978-1980)

In 1978, Filmation first aired its Saturday morning live-action spin-off of Space Academy (1977): Jason of Star Command (1978-1979).

Inspired by the success of Star Wars (1977), the new series was designed to be more space fantasy and less science fiction than was its predecessor.  More colorful action, in other words; less concentration on confronting and making peaceful contact with diverse alien races. And where Space Academy is very didactic, involving young people learning how to be better people and better offices, Jason of Star Command eschews virtually all such lessons or messages.

Initially, and throughout its first season, Jason of Star Command was broadcast as part of the umbrella or omnibus series Tarzan and the Super 7 (1978-1980).  This series also played very much like a 1930s serial (think: Flash Gordon), with cliffhanger endings, and every episode labeled as a chapter in the ongoing adventure.  The following year, Jason of Star Command received its own thirty-minute time-slot, and dropped the overt “chapter play” elements to a large degree.

In terms of its universe, Chapter 1: “Attack of the Dragon Ship” provides some further details. The episode commences with a narration that sets the stage:  “The time: the distant future. Man has reached the farther stars, but has also uncovered dark mysterious galaxies. And as Star Command heads into the unknown, danger lays in wait.”

The aforementioned Star Command, which Jason terms “the most powerful force in the galaxy,” operates out of the familiar Space Academy asteroid complex seen in the earlier program.  The control room set is re-used from Space Academy, as are the uniforms of the personnel.  Since Star Command and Space Academy share a control room and a commander, it isn’t clear how Star Command’s presence is any sort of secret.

In terms of technology, Jason of Star Command also re-uses the Seekers occasionally, and introduces a fighter craft called the Star Fire.  The Star Fire possesses a sort of double-escape pod at the very fore of the ship, and this feature is used often on the series

In Jason of Star Command season one, James Doohan -- Star Trek’s (1966-1969) Scotty -- plays Commander Canarvin, who has replaced the kindly Gampu (Jonathan Harris), apparently.  He wears the same blue uniform variant as Harris did. In reality, Harris apparently did not return to duty – though he was asked – because of salary concerns.

Headlining the cast, however -- and in a Han Solo lookalike vest to boot -- is Craig Littler as Jason.  Although he is described as a “soldier of fortune” in the narration, he is not really a mercenary.  In all likelihood, this description is probably meant to make him sound like Han Solo, not just look like him.  Jason works with Star Command all the time, even if he is not technically an officer in the organization.  He’s not for sale to the highest bidder in the way one might assume a “soldier of fortune” would be.

The other cast-members include Charlie Dell, who plays absent-minded Professor Parsafoot in both seasons, and Susan O’Hanlon as Nicole Davidoff, a Star Command officer.  

The final member of the heroic team is a tiny robot, built by Dr. Parsafoot, called W1K1, or “Wiki.”  Wiki can levitate, fire lasers, and he squeaks and beeps just like a certain astromech droid from Star Wars.

Jason of Star Command’s central villain, Dragos is played by the great Sid Haig, a horror icon who brings a real sense of menace to his performances as this space tyrant.  Like Jason, Dragos appears in every episode. But unlike Jason, Dragos plans are foiled constantly.

I’ll be revisiting Jason of Star Command, starting with the first season, starting next week!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy (1977) Series Primer

“Welcome to the most magnificent achievement in space, the man-made planetoid Space Academy, founded in star year 3732.

Here we have gathered young people from the farthest reaches of the known worlds. They have been chosen for their unique abilities, and are being trained to cope with the mysterious, the unknown, the unpredictable dangers lurking in the vast darkness of space.”

-Opening Narration to Filmation’s Space Academy (1977)

Space Academy is a live-action TV program produced by Filmation Studios and created by Allen Ducovny in the mid-1970s for the CBS TV network. 

The series was picked-up for principal photography in late 1976, and first aired in the fall of 1977 (post Star Wars) on Saturday mornings. The series was designed to be morally valuable, and educational, and U.C.L.A.'s Dr. Gordon L. Berry served as the series' technical adviser, a capacity he had also served on Secrets of Isis (1975-1976) and Ark II (1976), to name just two Filmation series.

Each episode of the series is 22-minutes in duration, and Space Academy was shot in 35mm, an unusual choice, since most of its contemporaries were filmed in 16mm. 

The series features amazing and elaborate sets for the central locale, the Space Academy, the asteroid-based headquarters for a "Peace Corps of the future," according to series producer, Lou Scheimer in an interview from 1977.

Space Academy highlights the ongoing adventures of a group of young cadets as they complete their "space training" education in the year 3732. 

These cadets include Ric Carrot as Captain Chris Gentry, and Pamelyn Ferdin as Cadet Laura Gentry, Chris's telepathic sister. These characters care a psychic bond, and have developed some basic ESP abilities.

Also Brian Tochi stars as Cadet Tee Gar Soom, a young man who boasts incredible physical strength and is studying to become a physician.

Other cast members include Ty Henderson as Lt. Paul Jerome, an African-American cadet with a chip on his shoulder, but who quickly becomes one of the Academy's most valuable students.  He's an expert pilot and a brilliant scientist.

Chris's girlfriend on the series is Adrian, played by Maggie Cooper. One of her academy projects involves human-simian communication ("Monkey Business").

Instructing the cadets on the ways of the Federation is the series’ 300 year old father figure: Commander Isaac Gampu -- think Grampa -- played by Lost in Space (1965-1968) star Jonathan Harris. 

Over the course of the series, Gampu's brother appears ("Johnny Sunseed,") as does his ex-girlfriend, Marcia ("My Favorite Marcia). On one occasion, Gampu -- feeling old -- contemplates resigning, but thinks better of it. His personal quarters on the Academy are filled with ancient Earth antiquities, including a NASA spacesuit.

Commander Gampu is also a brilliant scientist and he has constructed Peepo, a small robot who often goes on missions with the students.  By his own definition, Peepo (in "Space Hookey") is a self-determining, Type-A manu-droid. In sci-fi TV history, Peepo has the distinction of being the first remote-controlled robot to appear on a network program.

The last cast-member on Space Academy is young Loki, played by Eric Greene. Loki is a trouble-prone child discovered by the cadets in the series' premiere episode, "The Survivors of Zalon."  

Like Deep Space Nine's (1993 – 1999) Odo during the early seasons of that venture, Loki is an orphan who has no knowledge of his past, his race, his history or his family. 

Much of his time on the series is spent with Gampu trying to discover the blanks in his past.

On Space Academy, The Cadets of the Academy's Blue Team (you can tell them by their blue shirts; as opposed to Yellow Squad ["Life Begins at 300"]) travels about space in fantastic-looking shuttlecrafts called Seekers.  

The Seekers can achieve the equivalent of light speed, here called star speed ("Castaways in Time and Space") and are armed with photon-torpedo-like devices called spinners.  The Seekers can also fire gravity rays and presser rays ("Johnny Sunseed"). 

These incredible and memorable ships were created by SPFX expert Chuck Comiskey and are highly-detailed miniatures.  Often, they are depicted in the series launching and landing in a very impressive-looking docking bay.

The Cadet teams often visit inhospitable planets by donning personal force-field generators rather than traditional spacesuits. These generators are known as life-support badges.

Regarding terminology, Space Academy attempted to create a lexicon and vocabulary unique to the genre.  The cadets often reply ORACO when given a direct order.  As per "Rocks of Janus," this word means Order Received and Carried Out

Another frequently uttered exclamation on the show is "Camalopardis!" This word, according to Paul in "Castaways in Time and Space" is derived from the name of a distant star cluster.

The flute-like musical instrument that Loki often plays (to the irritation of the other characters) is called a liratron ("Hide and Seek.")

Other technological terms you’ll find on the series: Zolium is an important mineral that powers the Space Academy ("Life Begins at 300"). Technite charges are explosive devices often employed by the cadets on missions ("The Phantom Planet.")  And MX-5 is an unstable compound ("No Place Like Home").  Meanwhile The Cryotron is an experimental device, built by Tee Gar, designed to "cool down hot planets." ("Planet of Fire").

The curriculum at the Space Academy includes Astrography ("Space Hookey") but also "live missions" to repair energy distributors on the asteroid BX-3 ("The Cheat), tend to a space farm ("Johnny Sunseed") and mine critical minerals ("Life Begins at 300.”)

About the history of the Space Academy Universe: According to the episode "Countdown," there were at least three "Star Wars" in the distant past, some of which pitted Earth against the humanoid Vegans.  A significant battle in "the Vegan Wars" occurred near "Proxima Centauri."

As far as current enemies, The Denebians are a reclusive race who seed their borders with dangerous, and heavily-armed space drones.  Crossing into Denebian Territory could spark a war, according to "Space Hookey."

In terms of genre tropes, on Space Academy, the cadets encounter  non-corporeal life forms ("The Survivors of Zalon," "Space Hookey"), ghostly guardians of ancient civilizations ("The Phantom Planet"), silicon-based life-forms ("The Rocks of Janus"), and even unfriendly, arrogant cadets ("The Cheat," "Life Begins at 300.")

Guests on Space Academy include Robby the Robot, and in 1976, Woolworth's marketed a series of action figures (and "action" clothing!)

For the next several weeks, I’ll be revisiting Space Academy, as well as the first season of the sequel series, Jason of Star Command (1978-1979).

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Shyamalan Series: The Visit (2015)

Today’s review is a bit of a twofer for the blog.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015) is both a found footage film (for Found Footage Friday), and our final entry in a director’s retrospective: The Shyamalan Series.

I am very happy that this particular movie finishes the series, since -- for the moment -- we have arrived at a happy place for this director and his career. 

The Visit is a stylistic and narrative triumph, and it’s not inappropriate, even, to term it a come-back for a director who has seen his brand tarnished by negative reviews and box office results.

A legitimately scary and disturbing horror movie, The Visit is also an uncharacteristically and chaotically funny film for Mr. Shyamalan.  When I remember his past films, I envision shades of gray, a slow-moving, trance-like camera bent on revelation, a kind of swooning approach to the unknown, and the mysteries of faith and the universe explored.

Yet there are several moments in The Visit that naturally draw out laughter, and make us feel connected to the film’s young protagonists.

This is just what the doctor ordered, in my opinion. So many critics wish to tag Shyamalan as pompous, arrogant, or self-important. This raucous, wildly-imaginative film blows holes in that image and in that argument. The Visit shows us Shyamalan as a mischief-maker, as a Loki-like trickster. An aura of wicked fun suffuses the picture.

And, of course, The Visit is simultaneously utterly grotesque.

I wrote about Shyamalan’s descent into nasty, brutal imagery in terms of The Happening (2008) and its opening salvo in Central Park. A scene late in The Visit tops that sequence for sheer visceral impact. You see the moment coming, and can't quite believe it is going to happen.

But it happens.

All along in The Shyamalan Series, I have pointed out how the director’s films obsess on two particular concepts. 

One is the protagonist’s search for purpose or destiny, and the ensuing unhappiness felt when destiny is not found, avoided, or somehow lost. 

And secondly, of course, all of this director’s films in some crucial way involve storytelling, and in particular, the structure of storytelling

How do stories work?  How are they assembled?  Shyamalan’s movies are a masters-level film class in that subject.

From Cole’s lecture about the efficacy of “twists and stuff” in The Sixth Sense (1999), and the two-sides-of-the-same coin “roles” assumed by Elijah Price and David Dunn in Unbreakable (2002), to the layering on of apparently made-up details in Lady in the Water (2006) -- a cinematic bed-time story -- the films in Shyamalan’s catalog explore this concept fully.

The Visit is no exception.

In terms of destiny or purpose, the film tells the tale of two generations in one family and, in a way, how that story repeats over time. 

We meet a sweet, single mom (Kathryn Hahn), who reveals, in-talking head, confessional-style interview format, how her husband left her and her young children, Becca (Olivia De Jonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) for greener pastures.

Now Becca is estranged from her distant father (living in Palo Alto), holding on to her anger at his departure from her life, and the fact that he ripped apart their family.

Intriguingly, Becca’s journey reflects her mother’s journey. When she was nineteen, Mom ran off with Becca’s Dad, and has not seen her parents since. She fought with her parents before she ran away, and she has never gone home. She has never sought or asked for forgiveness from them. 

However, Becca believes her destiny is to get that forgiveness for her mom, hence the “visit” of the title to the grandparents’ house in rural PA. 

But in fact, Becca’s journey is actually about her own purpose; her own destiny…she just doesn’t see it. She has erased her Dad from her life, and won’t even include clips of him in the family documentary she is making. 

She is making the same mistake, essentially, that her mom did a generation ago.  She is holding on to hate.

On the second front -- meditations on storytelling -- Becca is, delightfully, characterized in The Visit as a knowledgable budding filmmaker. She is bent on recording “the visit” to Pennsylvania and crafting a documentary about her mother’s journey and hopeful reconciliation with her folks, now well into their seventies. 

But throughout The Visit there is abundant and trenchant commentary on mise-en-scene, talk of narrative “elixir,” lessons on framing, and even jokes about film history.  One running gag involves the idea that virtually everyone (with one exception) Becca encounters fancies him or herself a good actor.

The camera is our constant eye in The Visit, and the movie's message at points seems to be that even though the camera records what it sees, it may not understand the whole picture.  It may miss something crucial…some basic, unspoken truth. Stories -- as we’ve seen before from M. Night Shyamalan -- are not about twists so much as they are about the assumptions we make.

The Visit suggests, we are holding on to assumptions about other people, and about their beliefs. 

The camera can’t account for those assumptions in what it records or sees. It sees only what is physically before the lens; not the untold layers beneath the surface.  The switch in perspective (what critics call the twist ending) in The Visit  involves something the camera could never have understood in the first place.  Reality is not as it seems.

Without giving away, I would merely note that The Visit possesses a startling, simple twist that alters our perception of the truth.  It is so simple a revelation, in fact, it might even seem basic or rudimentary.  

But I never anticipated it; never saw it coming. Not for a second. Frankly, I was floored.

That suense of surprise may result because (unlike The Happening), Shyamalan has casted so efficiently here, and the actors inhabit their roles. Or it may be because Shyamalan seems to possess no fear about taking the film to uncomfortable plateaus involving the indignities of old age, not to mention mental illness. 

He distracts us with these things and ideas. He sends us off in directions that lead us down the wrong path.

Accordingly, The Visit not only is a remarkable and effective edition to Shyamalan’s canon, but a ripping good story too, a horror movie that comes at you in a way you don’t quite see coming.

“Would you mind getting in the oven to clean it?”

Young Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) agree to visit their grandparents -- whom they have never met -- while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend.

Becca and Tyler are still coping with the fact that their father has moved away, and is no longer a part of their lives, but they want their mom to, finally, be happy.

Becca also plans to make a documentary about the visit in hopes of getting her Mom the “elixir” she needs to transform her life.  Specifically, Mom and her own parents, now senior citizens, have never reconciled after a terrible fight years earlier; a fight in which Hahn ran away. Becca wants them to put that past to bed.

At first, Becca and Tyler enjoy staying with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie), a sweet if eccentric couple who, for years, have devoted their life to counseling the sick and infirm at a local facility, Maple Shades.

But weird things start to occur during the kids’ visit to their grandparents.

After 9:30 pm, for example, Nana acts strangely, prowling the hallways. Meanwhile, Pop-Pop insists they shouldn’t be alarmed; that it’s just “sun-downing.” Pop-Pop also has a messy secret he keeps in his tool shed, away from the house.

The longer Becca and Tyler stay at the isolated old home, the more disturbed they grow by the behavior of Nana and Pop-Pop.  

One night, Nana grabs a butcher knife, and turns violent.  And one day, Becca discovers Pop-Pop apparently on the verge of suicide, a gun in his hands, aimed at his mouth.

But what is the truth here, and are Becca and Tyler prepared to learn it?

“They’re just old.”

The Visit (2015) probably isn’t going to win any awards for its sensitive depiction of the old or the mentally-ill.

In fact, the film regularly conflates those two categories to a degree that some may find objectionable. 

I have a 95 year old great uncle, and he isn't "scary" because of his age, or because of his behavior, either.  But it might be accurate to note that his behavior is different from mine, or my wife's or Joel's. Some daily things we take for granted, he has trouble with. The Visit isn't particularly nuanced about understanding this, but in a sense, it doesn't need to be.

Above all, this remains a horror film, and so Shyamalan abandons restraint, and delivers a work of art about old folks who are, to put it politely, absolutely bonkers.

Even at the film’s most outrageous, and creepy heights, however, Shyamalan makes at least some attempt to demonstrate balance. Young Tyler, for example, has a long-standing problem with germs, and when you think about it, that neurosis is not entirely different from the “issues” we see Nana and Pop-Pop dealing with in their old age. 

Tyler does, however, go through an involuntary immersion therapy for his germ-fear that I would never recommend, for anyone...

What works about The Visit, then, is not any kind of serious message about the old or the mentally ill, but rather the film’s anarchic and unpredictable sense of humor.  The success of a scene involving Becca and Tyler playing hide-and-seek under the old house knowingly hinges on our uneasiness with Nana, and lunges between horror and laughs with great fluidity and flair. 

Shyamalan’s game is thus to keep us off-balance, off-center throughout the film, so we can’t see the forest for the trees, and in a real sense, that works well given the subject matter. Again, I have a 95 year old great uncle whom I sometimes watch movies with, or otherwise interact with, and his responses to routine matters are somewhat...unpredictable. I talk a lot on the blog about form echoing content, and the humor/horror unpredictability of The Visit reflects the film's senior citizen characters andd their mercurial, capricious behavior. When approaching them, you aren't certain what you're going to face. The Visit, again, is a horror film so it knowingly transgresses; it doesn't deal in subtleties but literally in gross exaggerations. 

It is rewarding that Shyamalan is able to maintain unpredictability for so long in The Visit, especially given the parameters of the found-footage format, which hinges on the absence of artifice and the heightening of immediacy.

Suffice it to say that Shyamalan takes that idea of immediacy to a new zenith here, particularly in a sequence involving phobic Tyler, and incontinent Pop-Pop. 

There are times, in The Visit, when you aren’t sure if you should laugh or scream, and in the screening I attender, there was palpable air of uneasiness in the auditorium, and a lot of nervous laughter.  And again, this response proves to me that Shyamalan is a bit of a stylistic whiz, even if you aren’t willing to follow his narrative flights of fancy.  He knows exactly to milk the most out of a particular scene or moment, and The Visit is disarming in its mix of queasy laughs and horror.

Actually, Shyamalan has a lot of fun with the audience and its expectations here. He unspools, at length, a scene in which Nana tells a bizarre story. It’s a story about aliens in a nearby pond, you see; aliens who possess people with their spit, and put their souls to bed at the bottom of the pond. It’s a beautiful sleep, she assures Rebecca.

This story comes late in the film, as a final twist is looming, and you wonder - for a split second -- if this could be it. Have aliens possessed Nana and Pop-Pop? Is that why they are acting so strange; so bizarre?  Or is Shyamalan poking fun at his own storytelling technique, his obsession with the genre, and his strange “twists and stuff?”

The story about the pond plays one moment like a red herring, and then later, like a tragic fairy tale, a justification for a horrible, monstrous act.  This strange tale explains, succinctly, why I love the films of M. Night Shyamalan.  The aliens in the pond story means different things, depending on our level of understanding of the narrative.  It is a little funny at first, and then, eventually, haunting.

Basically, Shyamalan is as playful a puppet-master in The Visit as we have ever seen him. Indeed, he seems to have found a peace about his reputation for surprise endings and his career trajectory (categorized just last week as being in a "death spiral.") 

So if there is a useful message to walk out with following a viewing of The Visit, it’s but this: don’t hold onto your anger. It will destroy you, and you will lose precious opportunities if you do hold onto it.

I feel that, in some way, The Visit is thus Shyamalan’s “peace” offering to the world. 

Remember how he went after critics and appeared thin-skinned with the Farber critic (Bob Balaban) in Lady in the Water (2006)? 

That character and that subplot arise out of anger, in a way, about how Shyamalan’s movies have been received.  I feel that with The Visit, Shyamalan has finally put down that anger, and endeavors, simply to recommend that the audience and critics do the same. He’s going to keep doing what he loves -- entertaining us with stories about destiny and the structure of narratives themselves -- and we can respond in whatever way we choose to.

But he isn’t angry anymore, and we shouldn’t be, either. Shyamalan has found this sort of Zen place, at last, and that The Visit gets to express that at-peace philosophy in a meaningful way.  The Visit, moving dazzlingly from laughs to horror, ends on an emotional high note, an affecting reminder, finally, that we should be decent to the people in our lives whom we care about.

Because they won't be here forever.

Movie Trailer: The Visit (2015)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Shyamalan Series: After Earth (2013)

When I was a young boy, I received for Christmas one year a book with the (now politically-incorrect…) title Adventures for Boys

After avidly reading the selections within that anthology, I devoured other, similar stories of outdoor adventure such as Jack London’s (1876 – 1916) The Call of the Wild (1903), and White Fang (1906). 

Those tales featured genuine simplicity -- or clarity -- of theme and morality, and to this day, I find that writing voice and style appealing.

Almost universally set in a harsh climate or natural terrain, these “adventures for boys” also concerned,  specifically, a character’s rite of passage, even if the character in question happens to be a canine.

M. Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned science fiction movie After Earth (2013) is an affair in an almost identical vein. It’s a boy-against nature, rite-of-passage movie, and one uncluttered by story fat or extraneous plotting and incident.

In fact, After Earth is a stream-lined, enjoyable adventure for boys and girls.  And likes its literary antecedents, the film even focuses on a very specific philosophy of life, and explores that (spiritual) way of knowing with a surfeit of clarity, even grace.  

And I'm not talking about Scientology, either.

In short, the film is more enjoyable, and worthwhile than I anticipated it would be, and much more so than most reviews have indicated.

After Earth is set in the distant future. Man has left Earth behind after polluting and ruining it.  

One thousand years after that exodus and re-settlement on another world, Nova Prime, man has established himself as an interstellar presence. 

Unfortunately, a competing alien race has bred monstrous predators called the Ursa who can smell our fear, and who are engineered to do nothing but hunt and murder humans.

On a routine space mission aboard a ship called the Hesper, a hero father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his estranged, troubled teenage son, Kitai Rage (Jaden Smith) face danger when their ranger ship encounters an “asteroid storm.” 

The ship crashes on wild, untamed Earth, after cracking into pieces.  Alas, a rescue beacon is located on the tail section of the ship…located more than fifty miles away from the fore section’s crash site.

Side-lined by a severe leg injury, Cypher must send his inexperienced son into the wild alone to retrieve the rescue beacon and send a distress call to the authorities. 

Making matters more dangerous, the Hesper was carrying in its hold a deadly Ursa captive, a creature now unloosed on Earth and ready to resume hunting human survivors.

Cypher has mastered the art of “ghosting,” of suppressing his fear so that the Ursa can’t detect his presence.  But his son, Kitai, has no such experience…

In my introduction above, I wrote about After Earth’s central, fully-explored theme or philosophy. 

That philosophy of life -- short and sweet -- is mindfulness: the attentive awareness of the reality of things; of the happenings of the moment.  It’s a Buddhist belief, but also one that has been adopted in contemporary psychological counseling.

Mindfulness is considered one way of understanding life, and of vanquishing emotions that aren’t important, or serve no useful purpose.  And in After Earth, mindfulness is the gateway to adulthood and the key to survival in a frightening situation.  And we have seen in the Shyamalan series how purpose, and understanding of purpose -- clarity of one's destiny -- is a crucial leitmotif.

Specifically, Cypher delivers a lengthy monologue about the nature of fear in the film, and how, via the auspices of mindfulness, he was able to subtract fear from his mental gestalt.  Cypher describes danger as “real” but fear as nothing but a choice, an emotion that is “imaginary.”  

Hence, it can be controlled.

Cypher’s key to short-circuiting the un-real aspect of fear, as he describes it, is his recognition of his immediate, surrounding environment.  He describes a terrifying battle with an Ursa, and how fear left his body.  His eyes registered sunlight.  He describes the sight of his own blood.   But Cypher distanced himself from his emotions even as he tuned into his environment, so he could survive. In a crisis, Cypher suggests, we must deal with what surrounds us, instead of imaginary boogeymen that are unreal, and therefore unrelated to the life-and-death struggle at hand.

Mindfulness is the philosophy that guides and informs After Earth, but the mode of that philosophy’s transmission is of equal interest to the message itself.  This is a film about generations, and about fathers-and-sons, specifically.

Indeed, one might gaze upon the film in its entirety as a metaphor for fathering (or on a bigger scale, parenting in general).  Here a father must share with his child the way he sees the world, and then hope that this very knowledge will be useful when that boy must stand up and fight alone.  

Without being maudlin about it, the movie is about the wisdom we impart to our children. Other Shyamalan films have been, more or less, about the same idea.  Think of Morgan and Bo in Signs (2002), or Joseph in Unbreakable (2000).  Do we pass on our perceptual sets, or do we show them how to see the world in their own way?

And, of course, in this case, it’s absolute murder to see the boy stand up and fight alone, when it’s clear that Cypher wants nothing more than to fight Kitai’s battles for him. 

That’s an urge all parents feel and yet, in some important instances, must resist.  We send our children out into the world knowing that we can’t always be there for them, but that, hopefully, the things we taught them will resonate and prove meaningful. Those seeds will sprout in their memories, and they will survive and endure, and then -- one day -- pass on their version of that knowledge to the next generation.

The father-son relationship in After Earth is emotionally-moving because even a helpful philosophy such as mindfulness can be perceived, in certain situations, as negative.  

From the outside, it looks a lot like distance, or the lack of feeling...the lack of love. 

As Kitai's mother suggests, he is a sensitive, intuitive, feeling boy, one who needs a father, not a philosopher or commander.  He doesn't understand why his father is so remote.  There is a price to pay for mindfulness, for always living life in the "ghosting" mode, in the film's vernacular.

In terms of family issues, Cypher and Kitai both experienced a tragedy involving a family member, and Cypher doesn’t know how to handle his guilt.  So he deploys mindfulness in his family life too, but there is a cost to those around him.   It is not difficult or inappropriate to see Cypher as a character like the Reverend Graham Hess in Signs, someone who has suffered a tragedy and changed, withdrawing, essentially, from his children.

Cypher -- adhering to the stoicism of mindfulness -- can’t reach out emotionally, because he believes emotions don’t help in a crisis.  Cypher has been practicing mindfulness in his personal life for so long that he forgets what it means to really connect with someone. In other words, the very philosophy that keeps him alive is the thing that keeps him from truly connecting with his son.

Accordingly, After Earth reaches its zenith of emotion during its climax, when Cypher attempts to express his new-found regard and respect for Kitai in a kind of socially-acceptable but ordered and restrained gesture: a military salute.

Delightfully -- and outside of movie tradition -- Kitai doesn’t reciprocate.  

Instead, he hugs his father, an absolute assertion that sometimes emotionality, not mindfulness, is the key to life.   

Thus, like all children, Kitai has taken his father’s “lesson” and interpreted it in a way that is meaningful to him as an individual.  

That is the very rite-of-passage meted in the film: Kitai’s ability to understand his father’s choice, and then to make his own meaningful choice about whom he hopes to be.

The movie is about nothing more and nothing less than that kernel of an idea: one man’s way of seeing the world and his son coming to understand that “vision..." and divine his own belief system from it.

Sadly, you likely won’t read about any of this thematic substance in the majority of mainstream critical reviews.  Instead, the reviews for After Earth have been harsh, even savage.

That rampant negativity is a result, I suspect, of a perfect storm of bile and jealousy: the continuing backlash against Shyamalan (because he dared to trick us with The Sixth Sense [1999] and then minted a fortune), and the relatively fresh backlash against Will Smith and his son Jaden.

So if hating is the game, After Earth is a two-fer!

I should also state this fact: After Earth isn't a movie about Scientology.  I've read reviewers insist it's about Scientology because -- wait for it -- there's a volcano placed prominently in the action.  I suppose this means that Revenge of the Sith (a whole planet of volcanoes there!) is also about Scientology.  Who knew?

Perhaps more to the point, even if After Earth did feature principles of Scientology, would that fact immediately, a priori, render it a bad film?  Does the same rule apply to Catholicism or other branches of Christianity, or only to unpopular religions?

But I'm not in the business of defending movies, only watching them, interpreting them, and presenting my analysis.  Having seen and enjoyed the film, I conclude that it is a well-made, enjoyable “adventure for boys” (and girls too…) -- nothing more, nothing less --  with an authentic sense of humanity. It is a simple, straightforward "shipwreck" movie, and parts of the adventure reminded me of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.  The production design is original and compelling, and the location shooting transforms Earth into the most vividly dangerous of wildernesses.

We live now in a culture of noisy, hectic movie blockbusters, where event piles upon events, where there are feints and counter-feints, and where “surprises” and reversals come at the audience by the dozen (and often in 3-D to boot).  We leave the theater after such films not exhilarated and moved, but throttled.

Refreshingly, After Earth doesn’t care about throttling you, or layering on a multitude of high-intensity incidents.   Instead -- and much like The Call of the Wild or White Fang -- the film simply and directly vets its adventurous tale of extraordinary survival, and of a father and son discovering each other.

The key is that After Earth accomplishes those tasks with heart, and a considerable degree of humanity.  It's a shame people aren't looking at the movie with open eyes and open hearts, but bitterness instead.  It's more fun, I suppose, to fit the movie into another edition of the "M. Night Shyamalan-has-lost-it" narrative than to grapple with the ideas the movie actually presents.

Frankly, I think the critics could use a lesson in mindfulness.  

So you may love After Earth, or you may hate it, I guess.  But when you watch  the film, at least do this much: drop your expectations and biases, be in the moment, and judge the work for yourself, and on its own merits.

Tomorrow: Our final entry in The Shyamalan Series: The Visit (2015).