Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Project Terrible (Second Opinions): A.E.: Apocalypse Earth

Well, crap.
Time to finish off the latest round of Project Terrible! Today, I'm giving a second opinion on A.E.: Apocalypse Earth.

For Al's original review, see here.

Apocalypse Earth is a film by the Asylum, a company known largely for releasing low-budget films with suspiciously similar titles to big budget films on suspiciously similar release dates. They're traditionally called "mockbusters," which might lead one to believe they're parodies. They're not...they're just cheap and generally awful cash grabs. In this case, the target was After Earth, the Will Smith film directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

So here's the general layout. Frank, a soldier, is helping to evacuate citizens from Earth after it came under attack from an unknown alien race. For unclear reasons, he ends up aboard one of the evacuation vessels, the Albert Einstein (A.E., get it?) despite wanting to continue the fight. The vessels are set to each travel to different worlds that are likely to support human life, so that the human race can go on. The ship crash-lands on a heavily-forested world teeming with things that want to kill humans, including dangerous natural predators and mysterious invisible aliens. Working with other survivors, Frank tries to find a way to get off the planet.

In all honesty, Apocalypse Earth is actually one of the better Asylum films. In contrast to much of its usual fare, the Asylum has gifted this film with an honest-to-goodness plot that progresses along fairly clear lines, has reasonably natural rising tension and danger, and manages at least some level of drama. It has a very basic plot, and there are many things that aren't explained, but it sets up conflicts and develops plots and subplots reasonably well. There are problems with the film, but the general plot honestly isn't one of them.

This is probably because despite starting with a very large situation, the film largely tells a smaller-scale story. At its heart, this is just about a small group of people trying to survive in a dangerous environment. It really never much goes larger than that, and that's fine. The Asylum struggles when trying to tell very large scale stories (disaster movies, giant monster attacks, and the like), so keeping this tale smaller was a good decision, even if the film does hint at things beyond its scope. Honestly, I might have suggested going further with it: take out all the stuff about evacuating earth, and just make it a film about, say, a colony ship or better yet, explorer's vessel that goes down on an uncharted world. That removes all the unnecessary hints at a larger story and lets the story focus on the smaller struggle it is really aiming for.

It also helps that they've got a beautiful location to film in. The environment has a nice combination of natural beauty and a feeling of uncertainty and danger. It also helps that I didn't see any sign of the set with all the pipes from Ballistica, The Three Musketeers, Princess of Mars, and Air Collision, among others--I was getting tired of that one.

I'm pretty sure this shot was in Clash of the Empires, though.
And finally, I have to compliment the actors...or rather, I have to compliment one actor, really. Adrian Paul, playing Frank. I had such a conflicted reaction to seeing him in this film...I really want to see him in better films, since I have really fond memories of him in Highlander: The Series, but at the same time, he's a great guy to have as a focal character in a movie, and he just gave a good performance. He does spend much of the movie looking rather sullen (not sure if that's a character thing, or if Paul was just not all that happy about being in this film--he often has an expression that could really easily be read as a critique of the current scene), but he's just so much more natural on screen than most of the actors the Asylum tends to get. He doesn't get a lot to work with here in terms of a character--Frank is just a soldier, with not much else to his personality--but he works with what he has very, very well and seems genuine in the scenes in which he's allowed to show emotion. Particularly notable is one scene where he talks about the family he left behind--a generic scene, yes, but he makes it work by really bringing out a sense of sadness and pain. It also helps that while Frank isn't a particularly deep character, the plot does generally work to portray him as capable and skilled at survival, so it's easy to take him seriously.

Can we get a Sad Adrian meme going?
...I may go watch some Highlander: The Series after I finish writing this. I miss Adrian Paul.

The rest of the cast is not bad. There's no one who really lets the film down--it's just that they don't really give great performances either. The characters are pretty one-dimensional, which hurts, sure, but Adrian Paul shows that an actor can pull a one-dimensional character up and still make it at least somewhat interesting and sympathetic. The others pretty much just play their basic roles in the most basic way you can--so they don't make any flubs, but they don't do anything much interesting either.

I do have to specifically mention Bali Rodriguez as Lea, the camouflage-skinned girl that Frank meets, who serves as the group's native guide. She's not bad, and she's handling a pretty complex role despite not having...anything else at all in her film history, really. At the same time, she doesn't really do as well as the film needs. She manages to pull some sympathy out of the viewer, and has the right mix of capability and uncertainty, but she just...doesn't seem alien. She has lines suggesting more distance from the humans, or curiosity about them, or confusion about words, but by and large she just doesn't seem that distant. She speaks English naturally and casually, for one thing, even though she apparently only learned it from listening in on conversations and she's lived her life almost completely alone. Part of this is the writing of her character, but part of it is the performance...she really needs to sound less sure of herself in conversing with the other characters.

As one more compliment, though, the makeup work for her is quite good. It couldn't have been easy doing a full body camouflage pattern, complete with hair streaks, but it looks great and actually does help Lea blend into among the plants and such, which is pretty cool. Kudos on this one.

So, with all that out of the way, as you might expect, the film has a number of problems as well.

First off, there are just too many people in this movie. This would have been a much, much stronger film with a smaller cast. Despite the really small scope of the story, Frank ends up working with a pretty big group of survivors...most of whom exist to be bumped off whenever the movie feels like it, and have next to no characterization afterwards. Heck, they even find a group of survivors from a second ship! Most of the characters either have nothing to do in the film except die, or at best serve to get across one single plot point before they die. If the film concerned maybe Frank, his captain, the ship's robot, one civilian from their ship, one survivor from the other ship if needed (it does explain how Lea knows some English), and finally Lea, it would let the film build those characters more, which would make any death scenes far more meaningful. And frankly I don't know if the film even needs that many people.

Instead, we have this giant cast and the vast majority of them are just knocked off kind of offhandedly, even as the film goes on. I can't point to any real character trait for most of them other than things like "died when the alien ship blew him up" or "died when her head accidentally cracked against a rock in river rapids." Heck, there are some characters that stopped showing up in the film at some point, and I swear I don't even remember when they died. There's a subplot involving Lea's tribe, as well, but I'll forgive that...to a point. More on that later.

Unfortunately, the one random civilian the movie does decide to build a little bit of a plot around isn't much better...because the plot makes basically no sense. He reveals to some of the other civilians at some point that he's a pilot, so he's valuable to the others...but only if the captain ends up dead, since the captain is a pilot too. I'm not sure why he's concerned with how "valuable" he is since Frank protects him anyway, is clearly intent on continuing to do so, and no one ever suggests that they need to pick who lives and who dies or anything like that, but something makes him worry, I guess. Anyway, he proceeds to do absolutely nothing at all to progress whatever plan he has to kill off the captain or something, until very suddenly near the end of the movie he has a rifle and aims it for a door the captain went in...and is then shot by invisible aliens. It's worth noting that this is after a large number of other characters have died, so it makes even less sense for him to think that...what, they're going to leave him behind or something? I don't get why this is even a thing for this film.

This looks much crappier in motion, believe me.
And now we reach the old bugaboo for Asylum films...the effects. As usual, they do a perfectly good job with their CG models, and an abysmal job blending those CG models with the rest of the film. Any scenes in which people interact with CG models, or for that matter any scenes in which CG models interact with the environment, are absolutely hilarious for all the wrong reasons. It's all just kind of random poking and stabbing, and a lot of close-up shots of the actors making fighting motions while clearly having no earthly idea where the thing they're supposed to be fighting is or what it is supposedly doing. Even the CG-only shots aren't all that great, though--things just don't seem to move or interact properly.

On a note more directly specific to this film, there are lots of scenes of people getting hit with green laser bolts from the guns used by the invisible aliens, and it just never really looked right. It's hard to really describe why...I think it's just that there wasn't really a sense of "oomph" about it, you know? No one really reacts to being shot--and I'm not talking about wanting to see Hollywood's "fly back from bullets" stuff, just basic reactions. They kind of just fall over. It's hard to really get into why this feels wrong, but it just...it looks like people just lost their balance or tripped or something. It's kind of personal preference, though, I'll admit that.

Overall, it really hurt that I watched this so soon after Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, which had some notably strong CG animation and laser effects.

Now, about that other subplot, involving Lea's tribe...it's kind of a mixed thing. I actually rather like how they lead up to it, and a subplot about Lea being an outcast and all...the problem is that once the tribe and the survivors are together, the Asylum runs into its old problem of doing too big a plot for its abilities, and the fight with the survivors and tribe vs. the invisible aliens ends up seriously underwhelming. A lot of it even happens off-camera, as some of the survivors later discover people from the tribe dead and just kind of guess at what happened. It also doesn't really have a resolution. At a certain point, Frank, Lea, and the remaining survivors just kind of go take control of a small ship and try to leave.

Notably, in the film's final scene, only Frank, Lea, the captain, and the robot are shown, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure several survivors and tribesmen were left after the battle and never died on screen. Are they just elsewhere in the ship? It's never really stated.

I do have to discuss the ending in a bit of detail--Al's already spoiled it once, but anyway, spoiler warnings again.

So basically, Frank and Lea (and Expendable Extra #39) go to distract the invisible aliens' non-invisible ship by travelling in the open down a river, while the captain leads the other survivors to a ship they can use to get off-world. Of course most of the survivors just kind of disappear, but that's another story. Expendable Extra #39 bites it via waterfall, but the captain rescues Frank and Lea, and they travel into space.

Where the robot mentions that 325,000 years or some such have passed since they started out on their journey, and they can't use the ship to go back to Earth because the planet they were on was Earth. Apparently every single world the evacuation ship visited was impossible to use, so he turned the ship around. He just didn't tell them because they needed a goal. Yeah. Never mind that lots of humans died pursuing that goal when they might have been able to live if they'd holed up in the forest and lived like Lea's tribe or something.

So they go back to land on future Earth again, landing atop Mt. Rushmore (which looked pretty shoddy, to be frank...and simultaneously too intact, since it's been 350,000 years), and decide to take back their world. Which would be nice, if we had any idea how big the invisible alien threat was in the first place.

Here's the problem with the entire tribe plot and ending--we never really know much at all about the threat, but Frank and company just kind of say "yeah, we can take 'em." Not as in "we can take 'em for long enough to get a ship," but as in "we can take this world out of their control." It makes no real sense. Frank has next to no intel on these aliens. He has no idea who they are or what they can do. In fact, he even looks surprised when a second alien ship shows up late in the movie, after they blew up one alien ship, explaining that he hoped they only had one. Yeah. It's pretty bizarre, honestly--he knows these guys have captured and enslaved humans for at least a few years, can go invisible, have ships that shoot death rays, and his rationale for being able to take them on is basically that he just assumes that there aren't many of them.

You know what happens when you assume, Frank.

It's a real hole in an otherwise pretty strong portrayal of Frank as a capable survival expert and soldier, and what's worse is that no one, no one, questions it at all. There's no explanation for why Frank thinks this is even possible, and even at the end of the film they just kind of all board the "let's take back Earth" train without anyone raising the question of how, since they're previous attempt resulted only in the slaughter of several tribesmen and ex-survivors, they might have the slightest hope in heck of defeating an alien force of unknown size who are, by the way, capable of turning invisible. They come off less as a pack of bold heroes starting an uprising that will overthrow overlords and more as a pack of morons who think that since they have a gun or two they can just go right out and defeat a much more powerful foe.

If the movie actually came right out and said that they knew there weren't many of these aliens--which to the best of my recollection it doesn't--it'd be different, but for all I can tell, Frank basically just assumes that he can best a force of completely unknown size and capability through the power of trying really hard.

Ah, well. That's where the film ends anyway, so assume it goes wherever you like from there.

Spoilers over.

A.E.: Apocalypse Earth is a better Asylum film than most, but still not a good movie. It helps that the plot mostly avoids outright stupidity and presents a natural flow of events, and it really helps that the film has a good actor like Adrian Paul in it, much as I would prefer to see him in better films. However, there are still enough major flubs in terms of effects, poor story choices, and lack of clarity that the film ends up...mediocre at best. It's still one of the best attempts ever out of the Asylum, so I have to congratulate them for that--but they are not, absolutely not, at "good" or "entertaining" yet. They have the template here for a decent film--they're just still not doing a good job using it.

I'm pretty sure this is the only shot in the film of Paul smiling. It doesn't last long.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this movie. Given it's an Asylum flick, I generally overlook plot holes and the like and just enjoy it for what it is. Namely, an Asylum flick. I agree it's one of their better ones. American Warships was a decent movie as well, I think.

    I only saw it once, and it's been a while, but there was a scene where they were discussing relativity as it pertains to space travel. The person describing it, maybe the robot, got it all wrong. If I'm remembering right. Did you catch that?