After Earth (2013)
Rare is the movie that just seems to fail at every level of filmmaking, from writing to direction to pacing to casting to production design to logic to, well, you name it (perhaps the craft services were the exception to the rule). Director M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth is one of those exceptional, big-budget passion project failures that just mystify on every account, making you scratch your head and wonder who could possibly be passionate about something this utterly terrible? I’m reminded of John Travolta’s 2000 sci-fi Scientology-ode, Battlefield Earth, for a comparison that comes close to approaching After Earth’s star-powered ineptitude (this movie also has plenty of vague Scientology references as well). While I doubt this will kill anyone’s careers associated, though it probably eliminates some good will for the Smith clan, it definitely piles more dirt on the grave that was Shyamalan’s film career. Enough preface, let’s get into the meat of why After Earth is one of the worst sci-fi films in years.
In a sloppy bit of exposition, we’re told that humans left planet Earth after we made it too unsustainable. The human race then colonized an alien world except that the indigenous aliens weren’t too happy about this. The aliens made a space monster, known as an Ursa, which would track and kill human beings by sniffing out their fear pheromones. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) rises in the ranks of the Ranger corps because he has the unique ability to “ghost.” Because the man does not register fear he is able to sneak around the Ursa as if invisible. His relationship with his teenage son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is strained at best. Dad has been gone a long time and has high standards for his boy; the kid has to refer to him as “sir” even at the dinner table. Father and son are traveling through space when their ship crash-lands on good old Earth. Cypher’s legs are broken and he entrusts his son to make the trek to send out the distress call. The dangers of Earth, we’re told, have only magnified since humans left, and the Ursa onboard their ship has escaped.
Oh boy, where to even start with this one?
I’ve got a great idea, let’s take one of the world’s most charismatic actors and then turn him into a stone-faced hardass, terse with words of encouragement, and mostly sidelined so that his son can go on his stupid hero’s journey. I suppose Smith deserves some credit for stepping outside his comfort zone to play against type, but that praise only matters when the portrayal works. Smith is arguably miscast in his own passion project. That’s because this was really a $130 million dollar birthday present to his son, trying to use dad’s star power to establish Jaden as a star. It’s less a movie and more like a product launch. On its face, I don’t really have an issue with this. Nepotism has been alive and well in Hollywood for over 100 years and those in power have been producing vanity vehicles for their beloved for even longer. What I chafe at is that the finished product is so lacking and unconvincing. Jaden was cute in 2010’s The Karate Kid remake, a movie that was far better than it ever should have been. Unfortunately, After Earth came at that special time in his life known as puberty, so he gets his lanky, squeaky-voiced, awkward growth stage forever captured on film. Thus when he gets into a huff, squeals at his dad, and then become the world’s most improbable super warrior by film’s end, it mostly brings about snickers. You don’t buy a second of this character’s ascent to hero.
Let’s tackle the ultimate elephant in the room here, namely the involvement of Shyamalan. This is his first project he didn’t conceive; Smith himself came up with the story and personally hired Shyamalan. Who deserves more of the blame? There’s a reason why the marketing for After Earth has not breathed a word about Shyamalan’s involvement. In my theater, when the end credits appeared and it opened with Shyamalan’s director credit, the guy behind me remarked, “Well, that figures.” His sense of dissatisfaction now had a tangible culprit. It’s almost become a joke how much of a critical punching bag Shyamalan has become as a filmmaker. The man has genuine talent but it’s five duds in a row (I am counting The Village) and not even the world’s most bankable star could have saved this movie. As anyone who witnessed the atrocious Last Airbender can attest, Shyamalan is not a filmmaker who works well with a big special effects canvas. I’d suggest that Shyamalan, besides taking some time off, which may be a self-prescribed death sentence in Hollywood, find a smaller project to foster, perhaps something more personal and intimate. Nobody except the sadistic enjoys watching once-promising talents keep hitting a brick wall. Then again, people also dislike having to pay for terrible movies, especially when the director of said terrible movies keeps getting the opportunity to deliver more disappointment.
The plot, which Shyamalan is credited as a co-writer for, is so dull that I found myself almost falling asleep. You would think father and son surviving crash on a hostile alien world would be packed with survival thrills and excitement. You’d be wrong. It’s as if Shyamalan takes a page from Smith’s ranger character, and just goes about its business in the most thankless, ho-hum, undeterred manner. When we have characters that don’t react to the danger they’re in it has the misfortune of feeling less real, less urgent, and less dangerous. This was a problem with The Matrix films when Neo became a super being because then the stakes evaporated. It’s hard to sympathize with characters that don’t reflect the reality of their setting. With that said, so much of this script is just Kitai running off and running into different animals. He meets baboons. He meets a tiger. He meets an eagle. He meets a slug. Scintillating stuff. Such ambition. If this is what the execution was going to be like, why didn’t Smith and Shyamalan just make the planet an actual alien world? It would certainly open up the storytelling options. Or they could have gone in the opposite direction, setting this survival tale on a modern Earth. That would probably have made it much more relatable and resonant and also far cheaper.
The character back-story is also woefully familiar and just as ineffective. Before it even happened, I knew that there would have to be some tragic personal history so that Kitai could overcome his past. We’re given some cringe-worthy moments of flashbacks to the family’s happier times, when Kitai’s older sister Senshi (Zoe Kravitz) was still alive. It’s a plodding and contrived plot device for the father to preposterously blame his son for, who was like seven years old at the time. I kid you not, during one of these oh-so-necessary flashbacks, Senshi tells dad she got a copy of Moby Dick and a boy let her hold it. Dad doesn’t get it, though I don’t know if this is meant to be some lame sex joke. This back-story is ladled in with no real logical connection to events. All of a sudden, Cypher will be thinking about his broken leg and then, whoosh, we’re thinking about Moby Dick.
There’s also the issue of its tenuous grasp on reality. I know this quality is a give-and-take depending upon the tone of the sci-fi film, but After Earth is so drearily self-serious that it becomes even more unbearable when it so clearly conflicts with credulity. This movie’s big message that it pounds into your head repeatedly is that fear is a choice, fear is not real, and that fear is a hindrance for mankind’s progress. This is nonsense. Fear is what kept our ancestors alive rather than trying to play with larger predators. Fearlessness is a great way for your species to end. You know an animal without fear? Lemmings. The fact that the movie has to literalize this conflict in the form of a fear-smelling alien monster is just beyond absurd. Let’s keep this literalizing-of-theme going; maybe next the aliens will fashion a monster that smells intolerance or illiteracy. Why are these aliens even genetically creating a monster to do their dirty work? If they have the superior scientific prowess to create a gnarly beast, I’m pretty sure they can take care of mankind. On top of this assertion, why would you make a beast that is effectively blind and only reliant upon one sense and then you limit that one sense to “fear”? Why not just have the alien monster smell human beings? That seems to make a lot more sense.
What also buggers my mind is the fact that, according to After Earth, everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans. First, I don’t think substantial leaps in evolution work in meager thousand-year spans; secondly, these evolved creatures are really just slightly larger versions of familiar animals, which doesn’t really make much sense either; and lastly, if humans have been off planet for a thousand years, how did these animals evolve to kill something they no longer have any interaction with? Then there’s the fact that the Earth drops rapidly into freezing temperatures overnight, for no good reason. How do all those plants survive? As an extension, Kitai’s super suit is just a prime example of a poorly developed idea that just as easily could have been abandoned. He has a special leotard that changes to his environment. We’ll watch it change colors though we’re never given any worthwhile reason why this is happening. However, Kitai’s suit will not shield him from Earth’s sudden temperature drops. So he’s wearing this super suit that adjusts to his environment… except temperature? If you’re going to present something all super scientific and then give it such obvious limitations, then you never should have introduced it in the first place. This is an ongoing theme with the film.
Then there are just nit-picky things like my total distaste for the production design of this movie. The spaceships look so chintzy. They have plastic flaps separating sections, like what you’d see in an office building when there’s construction. The spaceship interiors, as well as home interiors, also look like some bizarre mix of honeycomb and bamboo. I’m all for thinking outside the box when it comes to futuristic design, but this is just stupid. One of the great possibilities of sci-fi is to capture our imagination with out-of-this-world visuals, the unfamiliar, the spectacle of the alien. If your spectacle is good enough, it can even save a so-so movie, like last year’s Prometheus. Being stuck on Earth, only slightly different, emphasis on slightly, fails to deliver anything visually that will captivate an audience too often settling into boredom. Apparently After Earth looks pretty much like Earth except for Mount Doom popping up. The special effects are also lackluster and the score by James Newton Howard will try and trick you at every turn into thinking what’s happening onscreen is a lot more interesting than it is.
If you value your entertainment, please ignore After Earth. It doesn’t even work from a derisive enjoyment angle. The movie is lethargic and unimaginative to its core. It’s predictable at every turn and underwhelming throughout. The plot consists of the most boring father-son team in recent memory and a hero’s journey that feels false at every step. This big-budget star vehicle doesn’t work when its star doesn’t have the intangibles to be a star, nor does it help when the story is so poorly developed. The science feels boneheaded, the characters are dreary, the pacing sluggish, the spectacle clipped, and the world building to be bland. The shame is that this premise, even this exact same premise on a future Earth, could have easily worked as a suspense thriller. Smith seemed more interested in building an After Earth enterprise, since companion books were commissioned, and extending the reach of the Smith family empire. Making a good movie, it seems, was secondary. Being fearless also has its disadvantages.
Nate’s Grade: D