After Earth (2013)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Catrina D. Enjoy!]
M. Night Shyamalan continues his descent into directorial mediocrity with After Earth. But unlike his previous efforts, the marketing for the film made little to no mention of his involvement. In fact, he seems to have been reduced to mostly a hired gun, adapting a story that Will Smith came up with in his continued quest to turn his son Jaden into a movie star.
After Earth takes place in a future where humans abandoned Earth centuries ago due to a vague environmental catastrophe, and in fact, people have been gone for so long that plants and animals have evolved to know how to best kill humans. I’m not sure that’s how evolution works, though it’s disheartening to see that Shyamalan thought so much of his silly “plants killing humans” premise of The Happening that he reuses it here.
But this movie is not so much a survival film as it is an inspirational tale about learning to be strong in the face of danger. A lot of reviewers slammed the movie, dismissing it mostly as a Will Smith ego project. Which it is, but it’s far from the worst ego project you’ll see, nor is it the worst example of post-apocalyptic sci-fi you’ll see on the screen either. And while the kid-vs.-beast action movie plot is mostly predictable and uninvolving, there is a somewhat moving tale buried in here about a father and son breaking through the emotional walls that separate them and helping each other grow.
Oh, and did I mention that After Earth features aliens? Yes, after humans left Earth, they settled on a new world called “Nova Prime”, which was then invaded by aliens. We humans have the worst luck. As part of their invasion, the aliens bred creatures called “Ursas”, many-limbed predators that look like miniature versions of the Cloverfield monster. But their key trait is that they’re blind, and can only “see” their prey by smelling their fear.
This brings us to Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a military general who’s become a legendary Ursa slayer thanks to his inability to feel fear. By remaining calm and focused, he’s able to become completely invisible to the beasts, a tactic known as “ghosting”. (Which mostly makes me wonder why the aliens didn’t breed their genetically engineered killing machines to have eyes.)
His son Kitai (Jaden Smith) also wants to be a member of the Ranger Corps like his father, but has been rejected due to his inability to suppress his emotions. He’s still suffering from flashbacks to seeing his sister (Zoe Kravitz) killed by an Ursa before his eyes. Kitai blames himself for her death, because he believes his fear drew the creature into the house.
General Raige (which sounds like the name of a rejected G.I. Joe character) is being sent on one final mission to transport a captured Ursa across the galaxy. He decides to bring along Kitai, because what better way for father and son to bond then by transporting a voracious, man-eating monster?
Their ship encounters a meteor storm along the way, and as you’d expect, the only place for them to crash land is the abandoned, quarantined planet Earth. Cypher and Kitai are the only two survivors of the crash, and Cypher is gravely injured, leaving it up to Kitai to find the tail of the ship and activate the emergency beacon to summon help. And so, Kitai has to trek a hundred kilometers across dangerous territory, battling the dangerous animals and plants that now cover the planet.
Using his wits and various futuristic gizmos, Kitai takes on baboons, poisonous leeches, giant eagles, saber-toothed tigers (which have somehow come back from extinction??), instant cold snaps, volcanoes, and yes, even an alien Ursa.
To the surprise of no one, the captured Ursa got loose after the crash, and it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that it eventually locates Kitai just in time for the big climax of the movie where it tests his newfound ability to conquer his fears. And so the son has become the father, the student has become the teacher, and so on and so forth.
The catch phrase of the movie is “Danger is real, fear is a choice.” This is a common theme throughout the entire film, though it appears the elder Smith and Shyamalan have unfortunately confused the concept of “fearless” with “emotionless”. As Kitai makes his way across hazardous terrain, he maintains an audio link with his father, who delivers a series of the most monotone motivational speeches you will ever hear.
Even during his son’s most horrifying encounters, Will Smith’s voice never wavers from an utterly lifeless tone, and this becomes unintentionally comical after a while. And at the end when they survive (of course they survive), you don’t get the feeling that Cypher has changed to meet his son halfway. Despite Cypher deciding to give this “hugging” thing a try, it seems more like Kitai has become an detached automaton like Dad, and sure, it worked out great in this scenario, but this doesn’t seem like a recipe for a healthy living situation once they both get back home.
There are a few scattered interesting sci-fi concepts here, mostly in the Ranger suits, which change color depending on the environment, and even automatically transform into camouflage when danger is near. The suit also has built-in glider wings, so apparently the designers anticipated its wearers frequently having to jump off cliffs and out-fly predators.
And despite the clichéd plot, there are still small traces of the Shyamalan we all remember from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, particularly in the moments when Kitai relives the horror of his sister’s death. When he focuses on the fear brought on by trauma, Night can still provide rapturous, artful moments. Unfortunately, this film is far more interested in showing its lead character fighting CGI animals that never come close to looking realistic.
But perhaps the animals weren’t meant to be realistic. This is a movie that doesn’t try to be what it’s not, really, and seems to be fully aware that it’s simple, lightweight action-adventure fare that fathers might want to watch with their own teenage sons. It’s all about dealing with loss, along with defeating your demons, and that’s a good (thought not terribly original) message for younger viewers.
But the biggest issue is how the movie’s lead, Jaden Smith, has been deliberately forced to carry the whole movie on his own, and he simply doesn’t have the charisma or the presence for it. He seems to work mainly as a foil to actual movie stars like Jackie Chan, or Keanu Reeves (yes, he possesses less charisma than Keanu), or his own father, who’s been relegated to what’s basically a larger-than-average bit part here. Also detracting from the performances is how father and son have been given pseudo-Texas accents that no one else in the movie has (maybe they took the “Ranger” thing too literally?), with Jaden’s frequent “Yes, suh!” only becoming more grating as the film goes on.
After Earth is a decent enough film, but if you avoided it because of M. Night Shyamalan’s name being on it, I can’t say that you made a tragic mistake. Given the collective disastrous response to Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, he’d have to knock it out of the park to change anyone’s mind about him. This movie is not going to change anyone’s mind about him.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]