A film review by Craig J. Koban June 5, 2013

AFTER EARTH jj
 

2013, PG-13, 100 mins.

 

Will Smith as Cypher  /  Jaden Smith as Kitai  /  Sophie Okonedo as Faia Raige  /  Zoe Kravitz as Senshi Raige

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan / Written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, from a story by Will Smith

M. Night Shyamalan’s AFTER EARTH is certainly the best film that the director has made in years.  

Alas, that’s not really saying very much, seeing as I have graded the last four films on his resume with a dreaded one star (or under) rating.  

AFTER EARTH most certainly doesn't achieve the wretched level of soul-crushing awfulness that Shyamalan’s last film THE LAST AIRBENDER dubiously achieved, but it’s nonetheless yet another mediocre blip on his recent career, one that began with so much unqualified promise all those years ago with THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS.  A man that was once considered an heir apparent to Hitchcock and Spielberg is now been regrettably downgraded to a punch line in serious film circles. 

AFTER EARTH may be considered Shyamalan’s first pure science fiction film, although some of his past films have contained elements of otherworldly fantasy.  Interestingly, it’s not solely the product of his imagination, but rather of his leading star, Will Smith (receiving story credit here, which Shyamalan and THE BOOK OF ELI writer, Gary Whitta, adapted into a screenplay).  I guess that one could aptly label AFTER EARTH as a pure work-for-hire effort for the once critically acclaimed director; his unique command of visuals and mood are kind of AWOL, not to mention that the Shyamalanian third act plot twists are nowhere to be had.  Interestingly, his name alone was used in the past to help sell each one of his films, but now it's been completely erased from all forms of advertising for AFTER EARTH.  Question: why hire a director that you know you’re going to sheepishly subvert later in the marketing push?  Odd, indeed. 

The opening of AFTER EARTH sets the tone for perhaps more awkward storytelling momentum to come.  Much like 1984's DUNE, the film begins with a voiceover narration – which comes after the film rather chaotically plunges us into what appears to be a later scene in the story – that reveals what has happened to the Earth in the distant past, what has become of humanity 1000 years in the future, and the mysterious power of “ghosting” that certain military men possess, which makes them – wait for it - invisible to alien monsters that can only see their prey when they are afraid.  It’s never fully explained why these creatures – "Ursas" (criminally indistinct looking CGI baddies) – are blind to courageous warriors.  Maybe they should get their eyes checked by an intergalactic veterinarian.  

 

 

As silly as this opening section is, it attempts a fool’s errand of trying to encapsulate a millennia of history in one hastily cobbled together few minutes, which just leaves viewers disoriented.  What you need to know is this: Earth was laid to relative ecological waste in the past, which left humanity fleeing it and seeking out a new home on Nova Prime (which looks a lot like a vast Arizona desert, which further leaves me asking more questions about how food is cultivated and grown there, but never mind).  1000 years in the future mankind is thriving on their new home world, even if those pesky Ursas are making life difficult for colonists.  One lauded military general, Cypher Kaige (Will Smith) is an iconic figure with the power of the Force…er…make that ghosting on his side, which makes his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith, son of Will), all the more eager to make his papa proud.  

In an effort to bond more, Cypher and his son embark on a star trek into the cosmos, but on their supposedly routine flight their ship encounters an asteroid field, gets bumped off course, and crash lands of a “Class-1” (meaning "bad") quarantined planet that is explicitly labeled as a do-not-land-there-ever body.  The planet, of course, is Earth, and in the crash – which has killed everyone else – Cypher suffers two horrifically broken legs that makes traveling for him impossible.  Kitai, on the other hand, emerges relatively unscathed, which forces Cypher to takes drastic steps: he convinces his son to hike 100 kilometers across unknown terrain to rescue the ship's beacon and call for help.  There are some major problems, though, with this plan: Kitai was recently rejected by Cypher’s own Ranger Corps, which leaves him feeling worthless and vulnerable, not to mention that one of those fear-hungry Ursas – which was on board and survived the crash – is out in the Earth’s wild looking to pounce on Kitai at a moment’s notice. 

As for positives of AFTER EARTH I will say this: It is, at times, visual rich and lavish, even when some unpardonably rushed and half-hearted CGI creature rendering (especially with the strange futuristic animals that reside on Earth) appear unfinished and crude.  I liked the look of the Nova Prime cityscapes and especially Cypher’s ship, which seems to have both a strangely organic and mechanical appearance.  Then there is the ultra-nifty survival suit that Kitai dons while on his dangerous mission, which actually changes color when a ravenous predator is near or dangerous environmental conditions are eminent.  He also sports a long handled instrument that looks suspiciously like a crude lightsaber hilt that can spring out different sharp metal instruments from of both ends. 

Yet, this is really where my fascination with the film dies.  As far as outdoor wilderness survival thrillers/father and son coming-of-age stories go, AFTER EARTH is sinfully dull and lacking in any semblance of dramatic urgency or tension.  This is made more apparent by just how emotionally vacant and internalized the characters are here.  Will Smith has a thousand watt smile and has always been one of the most easy-going and charismatic leading men of the movies, but here he’s reduced to spending 75 per cent of the film sick, injured, and gurney-ridden, dryly dispatching orders to his son via a high tech comlink.  Even worse is that Smith and his son speak in an inanely peculiar and inexplicable dialect throughout the film that gets almost more giggle inducing by the minute.  Making Smith the star of your film and then having him play his role with a Vulcan-like sternness is a serious misstep.  He has never been so egregiously void of humor and charm as he is here.  He kind of just listlessly occupies the screen. 

Smith has been criticized for overt nepotism in his creative choices in the film, which I understand, but I can also see why he would want to give his son the lion’s share of the film to carry and help make him a star.  In defense of Jaden Smith, he does have to perform opposite of manufactured creatures for the most part and does have to carry AFTER EARTH’s action, but he emerges less as a figure of rooting interest (as he did in the THE KARATE KID remake) and more of an obtrusively whining nuisance in the film.  His personal journey of going from a deeply unsure of himself lad prone to outbursts of tears to a fearless warrior during his long hike on Earth lacks even modest credibility.  By the time he has that unavoidable confrontation with the Ursa you find yourself not so much cheering him on to victory as you are checking your watch out of anxiety. 

AFTER EARTH is not an epic misfire on par with Shyamalan’s last several efforts, but it still ploddingly wallows in rookie filmmaking unevenness and does very little to command our attention (that, and at 100 minutes, the film feels unmercifully long).  Both Smiths (especially the elder) are emotionless voids that are borderline impenetrable throughout the story, and Shyamalan – once a master of hair-raising tension – fails to create even a morsel of real intrigue here.  The man who gave us THE SIXTH SENSE is nowhere to be found in AFTER EARTH; he seems to have been replaced by a Shyamalan clone that’s just happy to have a job and pay check. 

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