Movie Review – After Earth
– Summary –
Director : M Night Shyamalan
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, David Denman, Kristofer Hivju, Lincoln Lewis.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: After crashing on a future-Earth, a father and son must work through their estrangement to locate a rescue beacon, to enable their own rescue, before they both die on the inhospitable planet.
What we think : Nowhere near as horrendous as most folks might have you believe, After Earth still can’t drag itself out of second gear, with some positively weird creative decisions (like keeping your major star cooped up in a broken spaceship for most of the film) and plenty of dull moments towards the end. Although rampant nepotism might have killed Jaden Smith’s career after this flatlining film, After Earth is a brave attempt to showcase something different from once-awesome director M Night Shyamalan. After Earth isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly not great either. Watch it purely for curiosity.
More like After Birth.
There’s a point, about five minutes into the end credit roll on After Earth, when you find yourself asking a question: is there anyone not from the Smith family who wasn’t involved in this film? After Earth is obviously a Will Smith lovejob, the “dream project” a major star can get made thanks to previously earned box office credit, and he’s done something uniquely crazy – he’s cast his own son in the lead role. Hollywood has never been shy about nepotism within its ranks, throughout its history, yet this is perhaps the most blatant modern example in recent times, and frankly it feels like the audience is being smacked in the face with a wet fish. After Earth is ostensibly a sci-fi actioner (although, as we’ll come to in a bit, there’s not that much action) headlined by Will Smith, a man once known for ruling the box office in any given year since Independence Day came out. While Jaden Smith isn’t entirely unknown – he co-starred in his famous father’s dramatic flick The Pursuit of Happyness…. as his father’s son – it’s strange to suddenly find such an unproven talent shouldering the burden of a major, expensive, Hollywood blockbuster like this. Helmed by on-the-way-down director M Night Shyamalan, a man desperate for a hit with his last handful of films bombing big-time, After Earth is a definite attempt by Will Smith to make his real-life son a film star, without having his son put in the hard yards. As you’d expect, Smith and Smith, as well as Shyamalan, came in for buckets of criticism, and honestly, it’s well deserved.
After Earth sees Smith Senior star as General Cypher Raige (yes, you read that right, it’s pronounced “rage”), a fearless leader of a post-Earthbound humanity who can “ghost” against creatures who smell fear through pheromone release on our bodies, rendering us helpless to slaughter. Smith Junior plays Raige’s son, Kitai, who accompanies his father on an ill-fated journey to another world where their ship is bombarded by asteroids, forcing them to crash-land on a highly restricted planet – Earth – which has since evolved beyond what we know it now. One of the creatures, an Ursa, was also being transported, and it not only survives the crash, but also escapes its imprisonment, leaving it free to track and hunt the crippled Cypher and his inexperienced son Kitai. Kitai and Cypher have a fractured relationship – Kitai’s sister was killed by one of the Ursa’s after breaching their home, while Cypher was away on mission, and Kitai has recurring flashbacks of their time together. Kitai is tasked by his father to retrieve a rescue beacon from the tail-section of their crashed ship, a hundred kilometers away through thick jungle and difficult terrain. Avoiding death through the local wildlife, Kitai must also avoid contact with the extremely dangerous Ursa, to set the beacon off and rescue both he and his badly wounded father.
I went into After Earth with exceptionally low expectations. A tidal wave of bile and scorn had been heaped upon the film as a tepid, insipid sci-fi actioner that delivered few thrills, little intelligence, and minimal excitement. Truth be told, I think I was moderately surprised with what I saw, because After Earth isn’t the train-wreck I’d been expecting; don’t mistake this for me enjoying the film, because most of the time I was just bored, but if you’re expecting a Battlefield Earth level of crap, that’s not the case here. Technically, the film is really well put together: the production design, editing, sound design and visual effects are all big-budget, large-scope “blockbuster” with what appears to be no expense spared. In this regard, After Earth presents little difficulty in getting “into” the world it showcases. What isn’t so easy to remain positive about is the sheer blandness of both the story, and the characters. Like finding half a fly inside your cherry tart, After Earth’s glorious world-building falls flat around terrible characters, a daffy narrative and, frankly, ordinary performances – mainly from Jaden and Will Smith.
The story isn’t terribly unique – it’s a survivalist quest film, with a primary antagonist being the very environment our characters are placed in, as well as the constant threat of a malevolent, extremely violent monster at the very end, and the fact that there’s very little about this far-flung-future Earth that isn’t designed to kill us. The tension of this is handled with globular tenacity by M Night Shyamalan, a man who knows his way around building tension, and yet can’t quite do the sort of thing a film like After Earth desperately needs. The screenplay, Shyamalan and Gary Whitta off a story by Will Smith (he comes up with the idea, and gets somebody else to make it “work”), is filled with pseudo-emotional rubbish about not feeling fear (apparently it’s all in the mind) and the lack of trust between father and son, while constant flashbacks regarding Kitai’s mother and sister try to work in tandem with the current arc to limited effect. It just feels…. contrived, almost too much so, as if the script is aiming for some form of story shorthand that makes it easier for us to “get” into who these people are. Frankly, Will Smith’s character is a prick. I understand he’s supposed to be a fearless leader of men, and Smith tries for some bizarre mixture of Clint Eastwood’s icy stoicism and Bruce Willis’ pompous strut, but the constant lack of emotion leaves his arc as empty as the air around his slowly dying body. Jaden Smith lacks the nuance to get a real grip on his “young boy trying to impress and teach his father a lesson” routine, his arrogance ill-explained and his tempestuousness seemingly at odds with his Straight A Student established early in the movie. As the film progresses, Jaden’s continual lack of understanding shines through the role, leaving his “acting” more like paint-by-numbers than anything one might learn by treading the boards for a few years.
The rest of the cast fade inexplicably into the background, a nameless cavalcade of talent overshadowed by the Smith’s persistence of vision. This isn’t a film about other people; this is a film about Will and Jaden Smith. Sophie Okonedo, as Cypher’s wife and Kitai’s mother, and Zoe Kravitz (daughter of rocker Lenny) as Kitai’s deceased sister, are as close to alternative emotional hooks this film gets, but their roles are largely underwritten and seem generic so as not to really draw you away from Will and the Jadester.
After Earth’s nepotistic afterbirth barely covers the rest of the problems this movie has. The film’s plodding narrative, which sees Jaden trekking through miles of jungle landscape, interspersed with a variety of vaguely familiar animals (a giant vulture thing, a troupe of killer baboon-monkeys, and some sweet little wild pigs) and the fact that Jaden’s communicating with his father off-screen throughout, makes this feel more like a two-pronged affair than a cohesive whole. Cypher’s stuck back in the crashed ship, his leg slowly bleeding out, and he must use the communications device on Kitai’s suit to guide him through the jungle. M Night’s desire to show restraint with the camerawork and editing – the film flows like water, slow moving water – robs a lot of tension and excitement from whatever potential the whole thing has, although his handle on action sequences is good, yet not great. The films’ mountainside climax does feel rushed, and lacks emotional connection; the entire film feels much the same way, as if we the audience are disconnected from proceedings by the sheer distance between these people and our own lives. The great thing about science fiction, when it’s done well, is that we can find something to latch onto emotionally regardless of the distance and space; After Earth just feels too remote to really care about, a factor I lay at the script, and the characters.
After Earth isn’t a complete disaster, although it might seem like it. The film looks amazing, and the wrap-around world it establishes is actually pretty cool. Yet, for all this swish-o development, it’s a pity they didn’t put more work into the characters, or the emotional sections of the story. Misusing an actor as bankable as Will Smith, who spends the whole film sitting on a chair in a ruined spacecraft, is near-unforgivable for such an expensive movie, as is casting the relatively inexperienced Jaden Smith in the key emotional role of Kitai, a decision which nearly (nearly, mind you) ruins the entire thing. After Earth is hardly a world-beater, and will forever shine the light of nepotism ruining Hollywood for a new generation of film-makers to be warned about, but is enjoyable to a point – whatever that point is.
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