After Earth (2013)

Is it too late for M. Night Shyamalan? Has he finally reached a point in his career where there’s simply nothing he can do to redeem himself? The man is still a very talented filmmaker and always has been, but has his rampant unchecked ego causes irreparable damage to his reputation, so much so that even when he does good work, people will still hate it, just because his name is on it?

I ask this question because After Earth is easily the first film Shyamalan has made in more than a decade that genuinely works. It’s not a masterpiece, but as an old school slice of science fiction, it’s a solid B effort. Shyamalan mostly avoids the trap that he so often falls into of trying to be needlessly clever with the narrative (meaning, no, there’s not some big twist at the end), Jaden Smith gives a decent if a tad forced and child actor-y performance, Will Smith is refreshingly restrained for a change, the pacing is good, and there’s some effective tension. Overall, it’s a perfectly serviceable father-son drama/wilderness survival suspense-thriller. And yet, the response has been overwhelmingly negative thus far.

To be fair, it’s easy to see why everyone was preemptively down on After Earth before release. Shyamalan has spent the better part of his career doing his best to alienate audiences, with his vanity-driven films with embarrassingly pleased-with-themselves narratives and laughable execution. The man really has no one to blame but himself for his fall from public favor.

It’s also hard to ignore the other infamous ego in the room. While liked more often than not, Will Smith has also had more than his share of questionable career choices, and is well known for demanding creative control on everything he appears in, and generally displaying a rather inflated opinion of himself. Not an entirely undeserved opinion, mind you; exceptionally talented people have earned the right to pat themselves on the back a little bit. But it does tend to grate on the nerves of outside observers from time to time.

So when you combine two personalities that people often find annoyingly smug with the fact that the project stars the kid of one of said personalities, it’s not hard to see why people were expecting another trainwreck vanity project. And with regards to the latter part, they were not entirely wrong. The story is courtesy of Will Smith, who hasn’t exactly written himself into the humblest of roles: Space warrior and ex-Youngblood member Cypher Raige, utterly fearless monster-slayer of the future, who must train his son (played, of course, by Smith’s real life son Jaden) to become an equally fearless monster-slayer. But outside from that, nothing about the movie seems unduly pleased with itself, and if you ignore, or have somehow remained unaware of the parties involved and their histories, it’s unlikely to bother you.

There have also been rumors that the film is some kind of Scientology metaphor in the vein of Battlefield Earth. This suspicion was reinforced by the vaguely pretentious theme of the film that doubles as its tagline: “Danger is real, fear is a choice.” Knowing little about Scientology, I couldn’t possibly guess whether this actually resembles any of that church’s beliefs. But given the infamous failure of Battlefield Earth and most people’s negative gut reaction to anything involving movie stars and Scientology, it’s no surprise this might elicit some sneers. But it’s worth pointing out that Smith has merely studied Scientology, and does not actually practice it, and besides that, whether or not you agree with whatever message or ideas a film conveys has nothing to do with the film’s actual quality. Just because Birth of a Nation is one of the most racist things ever put to film doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it a good racist movie, as hard as that is to accept. Personally, the notion that After Earth is putting forth sounds like complete bullshit to me—I’m reasonably certain fear is an instinct, which is sometimes our best tool for determining danger, especially in survival situations—but that doesn’t mean the film is bad for disagreeing with me.

If you’ve yet to see After Earth, I urge you to approach it with an open mind. It’s not quite the career redemption I keep praying we’ll eventually get from Shyamalan, but it’s a well-made, frequently engaging sci-fi flick that really is worth your time.

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