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"Patterns, Boom." Using Will Smith's Vulture Interview to Better Understand His Movies

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by Matt Singer
May 28, 2013 4:20 PM
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"Seven Pounds."

I am way behind on my work today, and the reason has nothing relatively little to do with a Memorial Day vacation hangover. No, this is all Will Smith's fault.

This morning, I read Vulture's interview with Smith and his son Jaden. Then I read it again. Then I tweeted about it. Then I read it again. I can't remember the last time I was this transfixed by an interview with a movie star. It's one of the most fascinating texts of any kind I've seen in months.

The article is ostensibly designed to promote the Smiths' new film, "After Earth." But they barely mention the movie (and they never utter the name of its director, M. Night Shyamalan). Instead the piece is more of a State of the Union according to Will Smith, actor, musician, mogul, father, artist, philosopher, and self-described physicist. It includes lines like:

"I’m a student of patterns. At heart, I’m a physicist. I look at everything in my life as trying to find the single equation, the theory of everything."

"When you find things that are tried and true for millennia, you can bet that it’s going to happen tomorrow."

"The forum of media that we’re in can’t really handle the complexity of things that we say all the time."

I can't speak for the media, but frankly I don't think I can handle the complexity of what Smith is talking about, which is basically a Grand Unified Theory of the Universe, a "special equation for everything," in Jaden's words, that we need to learn "a whole new mathematics" -- a "multidimensional mathematical" -- to understand.

For a puff piece Q&A designed to encourage people to go see the new movie from the guy who directed "The Last Airbender," this is heavy stuff indeed. And frankly, my busy schedule of blogging, watching movies, and occasionally pretending to pay attention to my family doesn't really leave a lot of time left to learn a whole new kind of multidimensional mathematics. But I sort of wish it did. I feel like we could learn a lot by looking more closely at what Will Smith says in this interview -- if not about the universe, then at least about Will Smith movies.

In recent years, Smith has achieved a level of stardom, and therefore a level of power, that means he is more than just the lead actor in his movies. As the producer of just about everything he appears in (and, in the case of "After Earth," the co-screenwriter), and as one of the few guaranteed box office draws left on the planet (and the multidimensional mathematical universe), nothing happens on the screen in a Will Smith movie without his tacit approval, if not his absolute creative control. He is, regardless of the director or producers credited on his work, the true auteur of his movies. 

That kind of control doesn't mean much of anything if you don't have something to say -- but as that Vulture interview makes abundantly clear, Will Smith has a lot to say. All this stuff about patterns and physics gleaned from watching hundreds of hours of TED Talks and a careful consideration of the highest grossing movies of the last 100 years might sound silly on the page. But whether it's absolutely true or completely ridiculous doesn't matter because either way Will Smith believes it with every fiber of his being. And he's making movies about it.

Sure enough, you examine Will Smith's films, particularly his work in recent years, and you find echoes of Will Smith's Grand Unified Theory of the Universe. Many of these projects begin as mysteries which the characters must slowly unravel to uncover a secret -- and reveal the pattern. Here is how the New York Times' A.O. Scott describes the opening of Smith's 2008 film "Seven Pounds:"

"'Seven Pounds,' which reunites Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino (who directed him in 'The Pursuit of Happyness'), begins with a series of riddling, chronologically scrambled scenes. A man calls 911 to report his own suicide. He badgers a blind call-center employee -- whom we suspect will be a significant character, since he’s played by Woody Harrelson -- with complaints and insults. He embraces a lovely woman in an even lovelier beach house. He visits a nursing home where he terrorizes an administrator and comforts a resident."

These seemingly disparate events congeal as part of an enormous scheme on the part of Smith's character (which I won't spoil here). The pattern, in this case, is Smith himself, who connects seven strangers' lives with a single cryptic plan that might be called a grand unified theory of redemption. It takes a while for it to reveal itself. But it's there.

Smith's other 2008 movie was "Hancock," a superhero picture in which Smith played the title character, a sloppy, alcoholic metahuman with a penchant for collateral damage. Hancock's poor behavior doesn't necessarily seem like a mystery that needs solving, but sure enough, as the movie continues, we discover that there is more to his backstory and powers that meets the eye. Eventually, we learn the full extent of his gifts and their connection to the other main characters in the film -- a couple played by Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron. All is not as it first appears, but beneath the random happenstance lies a sort of buried mythology of "Hancock"'s superheroes. And you might say their repeated behavior over many years constitutes a pattern. And once you find things that are tried and true for millennia, you can bet they're going to happen again tomorrow.

Even "Men in Black 3," last summer's long-delayed third installment of the very popular sci-fi franchise, traffics in Smith's signature enigmas. In the film, Smith's Agent J wakes one morning to find that his longtime partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) has been erased from existence, and that no one but him has any memory of him since the year 1969. This mystery resolves itself quickly; an alien menace (Jemaine Clement) has traveled back through time to eliminate K before he was able to stop his plans for world domination; J must follow the alien back to 1969 and help the young Agent K (Josh Brolin) prevent his assassination. 

If you look as closely at "Men in Black 3" as Smith believes we should look at the universe, you'll find more elements of his philosophy. The key supporting player in the film's 1969 sequences is Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a benevolent alien with the gift of extrasensory perception. He can see all the myriad possible timelines that are constantly flowing all around us based on our choices and can use them to predict the future -- if this happens, then this will happen, if that happens, then this will happen. In other words, Griffin is the first multidimensional mathematical being, the creature who can see the entire "special equation" and use it to decipher the world to his benefit.

In another bit of SPOILERish Grand Unified Theory business, K and J's battle with Clement takes them to the launch of the Apollo 11 rocket, where assorted extraterrestrial shenanigans result in the death of J's father at a young age. J had grown up with no memory of his dad; never understanding who he was or where he went. Now suddenly, it all makes sense: K erased the young J's memory to keep him from the painful truth and to protect the anonymity of the Men in Black. J going back in time ensured these events took place and allowed him to finally learn the truth -- they simultaneously create the pattern and expose it. And once J exposes the pattern, he becomes whole and happy.

I have not seen "After Earth" yet. I cannot tell you what patterns it does or does not contain. But I don't think you have to watch hours of TED Talks to guess there will be mysteries in this film. Odds are, they require some disentangling. And if patterns hold -- and Smith believes they always do -- the heroes' will ultimately find enlightenment. And with it, a greater, more profound truth.

Read more of "Mr. and Mr. Smith: Will and Jaden Psych Up For 'After Earth.'"

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