After Earth (2013) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence, scary images, and brief language
Running time: 100 min.
Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okenedo, Zoe Isabella Kravitz
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan
Review published June 3, 2013
M. Night Shyamalan's downward spiral with critics seemingly started with The Village, only for him to respond by making himself the hero and a film critic a heavy in his next film, Lady in the Water, and the knives have been out for M. Night for that film and every film he's done since. It certainly didn't help matters that the next movie after that, The Happening, is a truly atrocious movie. But I find the critically-lambasted The Last Airbender to actually be mildly worthwhile, and though After Earth seems to be faring just as poorly among the same crowd, I find it to be a mostly decent film that is perhaps a victim of misguided marketing and a pre-disposition to be skeptical of another Shyamalan outing, particularly one that also doubles as a Smith family vanity piece.
Not that After Earth is the return to form Shyamalan's fans have been waiting for, as it is a flawed film narratively, starting off with a premise that feels much more philosophical than could ever be taken literally from a scientific standpoint. Night, as a director, is still quite capable of bringing out interesting scenes by slowing down the tone and pacing of his actors to a level of quiet that's rarely seen in films anymore. Unfortunately, Night, as a writer, still comes up with plenty of cockamamie ideas that just make all of the serious themes just seem so silly when juxtaposed with juvenile comic book caliber premises and action developments. Co-written by Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), the premise of the film is, at the same time, overcooked and underdeveloped.
Will Smith (Men in Black 3, Hancock) stars with his son, Jaden (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Pursuit of Happyness), once again playing a father and son, named Cypher and Kitai Raige, respectively, who end up being the only survivors of a space ship full of Rangers that has crash landed on Earth in a future in which human life has long since left it due to its inhabitability, taking up residence on a new home world called Nova Prime. Life has continued on Earth, except it's far more dangerous than before, as the world has turned into a veritable giant jungle that would make any human around the likely prey among an assortment of carnivorous packs of wild monkeys, large cats, or massive birds. The militaristic Cypher has a pair of busted legs and a bleak outlook for survival, and when it is discovered that their their rescue beacon has been irreparably damaged in the crash, it's up to the untested Kitai to venture out in the wild to get the one from the tail section of the ship that resides about 100 kilometers of wildly dangerous terrain away, while his father monitors and guides his moved through their fancy communication system. And the final kicker is that the tail section contained a ferocious alien, dubbed an Ursa, bred to detect human fear and wipe them out, including, unfortunately, Kitai's older sister (Kravitz, X-Men First Class) right in front of him.
Though most will go into this film expecting a Will Smith vehicle, the bulk of the screen time goes to son Jaden, with father back at the downed ship that serves as a ramshackle 'headquarters' attempting to guide his son's every move to safely complete his mission, a la how Denzel Washington guided Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector. Jaden isn't a bad actor, but at this point of his career, he doesn't quite have the acting chops to carry through a mostly dialogue-free adventure on his own, lacking his father's charismatic flair, though it should be noted that even Will isn't as charming, as his character is a man who has learned to control his every emotion in order to effect the best outcome for his mission. As with his other films, Shyamalan often has his actors not emote heavily, leading to a very somber, sedate delivery, and that's certainly the case here, though some may find the Smiths' use of affected accents to be distracting at times. (One presumes that people would have different accents following a millennium after vacating Earth, but it's never overtly explained).
As mentioned earlier in this review, it's the science fiction backdrop that sometimes gets in the way of what might have been an interesting adventure story in its own. It should be noted that the film is based on an original story by Will Smith, who also serves as one of the producers, and he reportedly conceived of this tale taking place, not in the future, but in the modern day, with a father and son fighting for survival after a car crashes in a remote location, leaving the son to have to venture out on his own save his ailing father.
The futuristic setting does bring in some requisite eye candy appeal, and there is the backbone of a tale of how human beings are doing more harm than good to the prospect of life on our very own planet but this tale is mostly a barebones survival story that only gets muddled by any repeated attempts at farfetched expository information. Still, there are a few things unexplained, such as why humans decided to stop using guns or projectile weapons of any sort, utilizing a retractable two-sided blade that slices and dices its target up close. It sure makes battling the Ursas a bit more tricky than necessary, one would think, especially as the Ursas are pretty deadly up close, with their claws, jaws and acid-spitting maws.
The special effects are a mixed bag, as the space ship and outer space shots, as well as the hi-tech computer systems, are impressively rendered, but the animals are all CGI, and many of the backgrounds are obviously green-screened. None of the potential foes are particularly scary, and the only formidable one is the Ursa that looks like leftovers from the design of the baddies in Cowboys & Aliens. Nevertheless, the score by frequent Shyamalan collaborator James Newton Howard (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Hunger Games) is top notch, and does pull up the requisite energy when needed.
Although it might be too scary for the very young, had this been marketed as a film for tweens and teens, After Earth might have fared better with critics and would have found a better target audience than those looking for an action-packed, post-apocalyptic Will Smith blockbuster. It's a bit pulpy, written on a comic book level, with a narrowly defined plot that is easy to follow, like any short story drawn out to feature length, which makes it ideal for adolescent minds who like the merging of hi-tech with tales of adventure. Adults will likely find it too insubstantial to hold their interest the entire way through, though some may like the father-son dynamic (Twenty-five years later, The Fresh Prince is the parent that just doesn't understand), which hits upon 'rites of passage' as its main theme.
If you're a kid, or have kids, in the tween to young adult age range, it's worth a look as a populist, futuristic fable of the importance of fathers and sons to relate to and learn from one another. If not, keep expectations low and try to enjoy it as 90+ minutes of occasionally resonant escapism, and hope that both Shyamalan and Will Smith haven't destroyed their hit-making reputations to the point of no return.
©2013 Vince Leo