Hot Button Misdirection: ‘After Earth’ and ‘Now You See Me’ Faked Us Out on the Issues

By  · Published on June 2nd, 2013

This weekend’s two major openers had something in common: each deceived us as far as being relevant to current hot-button issues. It’s a strange thing to fake, I know. Marketing mainstream Hollywood fare as having political messages would seem to be misguided. And the fact that both were sort of a misdirection anyway, that probably annoyed anyone who would go to see After Earth or Now You See Me because of the promise of substantial contemporary context. I can’t be the only person who is more interested in studio pictures when they at least address if not also deal with real world problems. I even went to see the Fright Night remake specifically because it incorporated some commentary on the housing crisis and its significance in Las Vegas.

Now You See Me sold me similarly on its consideration of the Great Recession and banking crisis. I thought this could be the most timely heist/con-artist film since Nine Queens, which is brilliantly set on the eve of a catastrophic bank collapse (interestingly, while filmmaker Fabián Bielinsky was merely dealing with fears of the times in Argentina, an actual national bank run did occur in a year after it debuted). In the trailer for the new movie, after we see a trick involving a bank robbery we hear the magician characters played by Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson mention their audience has experienced hard times, losing their homes and cars. It appears as though the movie is about Robin Hood-like illusionists stealing from the “evil” bankers and giving back to the people affected by their crimes upon the economy.

Sure, there is some connection, though the hard times for the people in that scene are related to an insurance company rather than the bank we’ve just seen. And the overall aim of the magicians is something quite different than a response to current events, namely the recent financial collapse. Ultimately it’s a lot more timeless and pointless than it appears. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not all that common anyway for Hollywood to work with material involving such dating context and subtext anymore, especially if it’s more domestically relevant than globally. So why then did Summit Entertainment’s marketing department fake us out with such misdirection? Never mind that it does seem appropriate for a movie about misdirection.

For After Earth the abandoned issue is climate change. There is little direct address of global warming in the ads. But it is sort of implied by the trailers telling us that humans left this planet at some point because it was evolutionarily turning against us (we’re reminded of the environmentalist message of Shyamalan’s The Happening). And the main dilemma for the characters is that they’ve crashed landed on Earth and must survive the changes in climate and the dangers of animals that somehow inherently now view people as a threat. More blatant is the movie’s opening, which sets up the story with news clips compiled for a preachy montage about all that man has done wrong to his world and the disasters he’s in turn caused.

Beyond that, though, After Earth doesn’t have much to do with any environmentalist issue, let alone one as specific as climate change. Yes, Will and Jaden Smith’s father and son protagonists wind up on the now-uninhabitable planet, but outside of a few Earth-based obstacles, all of which are easily combatted with seemingly magical science and technological gadgets, the real predicament for them is that a random alien creature from their new world, which they had in a cage aboard their ship, is loose and far more deadly. That, and they can’t get a good signal for their emergency beacon. There are some minor pieces to a subtext regarding man historically depleting the planet’s resources (a copy of “Moby Dick” is used to address this) and there is an interesting theory regarding the state of Earth when the Smiths crash there, but mostly that’s all insubstantial to the main theme of this story of a father and son relationship. It pretty much could have taken place at any point in time and at any point in the universe.

These two movies seem to be only the beginning, too. The Internship, which opens Friday, has a plot seemingly centered around the present unemployment problem and even more precisely could address the modern concerns of free and cheap labor in these times of workers’ desperation. But it sounds like it’s just a dumb comedy wrapped in an ad/PR stunt for Google. And Pacific Rim probably has far less to do with an arms race than it appears while Elysium probably means for no connection to the Occupy movement. At least Machete Kills should have some major contemporary relevance, not to mention huge political balls like its predecessor. I know this is the season for escapism, but then these movies shouldn’t tease anything more than that if they’re not going to deliver on being something extra.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.