There May Be Danger Before Or After ‘After Earth’
Cypher Raige: Do you know where we are? This is earth.
I have been fairly vocal about two films I have been looking forward to this year from filmmakers who have been written off by almost everyone. The first was Pain & Gain, which I found to be interesting, but director Michael Bay’s style was still a component that hurt the film overall. Now I have seen the second film I was surprised to find myself looking forward to, After Earth, the latest feature from director M. Night Shyamalan. I wish I could have found myself enjoying the film more, but there is a real lack of energy in this fairly somber coming-of-age/survival story about a father and son stranded on a foreign land (which happens to be Earth). The problem is pretty simple, for a movie that talks about fear being a choice, After Earth is afraid of doing anything truly radical, settling instead for minimalist concept that disregards being anything more than functional.
After Earth is set 1,000 years in the future. Humanity has abandoned earth, due to it now being uninhabitable by man. Nova Prime is now the home of mankind, though they are plagued by the occasional giant monster attack (these creatures are known as ursas and they can literally smell fear). Ursas are held at bay by soldiers known as Rangers. The most legendary of these Rangers is General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who is fearless, meaning he can sneak around and kill ursas with ease. Cypher Raige has just returned from an extended tour of duty to find that his 13-year-old son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) has not yet earned the status of Ranger and seems to show a lack of discipline.
In an attempt to bond, Cypher Raige (a name that is too much fun to not write in its entirety) takes Kitai with him on a mission into space. An asteroid storm damages their spaceship, forcing them to crash land on the closest planet, which happens to be Earth. Earth is a much different place now, as the animals have all evolved to be incredibly hostile towards humans. The crash has left Cypher Raige with both legs broken, so it will be up to Kitai to navigate the terrain in search of a rescue beacon located on a piece of the spaceship that broke off and landed a ways away from the Raige’s location. With the chance to now prove himself, Kitai will have to learn whether or not he can succeed at being fearless in his task, just as his father would be.
It becomes obvious that this story could have just has easily taken away all of the science fiction elements and simply been a survival journey about a father and son stranded in a forest somewhere. Say they crashed a plane, the father is hurt, and the son is forced to find rescue back at a first aid station. Hell, switch around some of the elements of The Grey and there you have it. By adding the sci-fi element (necessitating the need of a name as awesome as Cypher Raige), After Earth allows itself the chance to use a strong enough base for its story and apply some neat visuals, solid creature designs, and inventive technology. It is unfortunate that none of these things are very exciting.
The idea of a futuristic earth, ravaged by cataclysmic events, now being visited by humans 1,000 years later is interesting, but there is little to admire in its look here. It basically feels like Jaden Smith is running through the Redwood National Park in California, with the occasional giant version of a baboon or eagle chasing after him. Add a volcano and you’re set. This is not inherently bad (give or take some iffy CG mountain lions), but it does remain fairly bland in is presentation, given that I was much more responsive to the nicely designed, but drab world seen in the other recent post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, Oblivion. Suffering worse is the logic involving technology versus what is necessary in survival.
Kitai has a minimal amount of equipment with him. That is fine, except that humanity exists in a future where light speed travel is possible, let alone plenty of other technological advances that could ideally be used to have created something more effective than a multifunctional spear to fight off giant monsters with. Again, one can clearly see how the non-sci-fi version of this film would make sense to have Kitai armed only with a spear. In this film, Kitai has a spear and a speed suit that turns fifty shades of gray, but does little else to actually help him. Kitai gets to wear an outfit that changes color to alert him of danger and contains a futuristic Go-Pro device, so Cypher Raige can keep track of him, but you really wonder why it can’t do anything more helpful. Kitai’s suit has flying squirrel abilities and that’s great, but why not something that counteracts a giant monster from being able to smell the fear on you?
Now, I did not design the movie and it is not my place to, despite questioning the logic of this film’s world-building, so I can still look away from this aspect, as long as I have other things to give credit to. Here is where it gets tricky, as this is where the minimalist nature of the storytelling could have led to something greater. With only two main stars in this film and only a brief period of setup, it becomes a mix of visual splendor, action set pieces, and the performances of the Smith duo. Will Smith is very good here. Given that he is essentially playing Oracle in this film (nailed my Batman reference for the week), I liked that he is playing against type and not relying on his natural charisma. He is an uptight father and devoted to his status as a Ranger (the wavering accent is another story). He is not emotionless, but tries to pass off that idea to his son, despite allowing us to see through the cracks, as the story progresses.
Jaden Smith is a tougher case to argue for. To his credit, I think the younger Smith has the right kind of physicality needed for a younger actor in this kind of role. Smith has previously proven himself to me as an actor in the remake of The Karate Kid, which turned out to not be a disaster. He is capable enough at selling emotion, but there is something clearly lacking for him in this film: I don’t really care about him. Despite the desperateness of his situation and the desire to impress his father, the character of Kitai is not very likable. I can argue that he makes childish decisions, because he is a child, but I am still following along with a character that I really did not enjoy being around. Smith tries, he does, but I am not sure where the blame goes. And that brings me to the filmmakers involved.
As far as M. Night Shyamalan is concerned, he at least shows that he is still confident in terms of visual representation of a story. I have had many issues with films by him that are not The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, with the problem being Shyamalan having complete creative control over his projects. With After Earth, Shyamalan did not serve as producer and co-wrote the film with Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), which was based on a story developed by Will Smith. The result is a film that is confident in its presentation, which is much darker than one could hope a father-son learning journey would be, but not a whole lot of fun. I did not need to watch the Smiths trading one-liners with each other or have either of them sing the closing song of the film, but with a film already plagued by logic gaps and a lack of a more charismatic lead character, all I am left with is a decent presentation of a film that is not as personal to Shyamalan as his past work and a strong performance by the elder Smith as Cypher Raige. That may be enough for some, especially if they find more to like in Jaden Smith’s character (again, it’s less of his work as an actor and more of an inherent problem with the character that bugs me), but there is not a lot more to be found.
Overall, After Earth is a miss. I wanted to like it. I would have loved to see this be a true comeback smash for Shyamalan, who, as a director, is completely capable of making great films, despite having a string of failures over the last ten years. This was not that comeback and I can only hope that he gets to work on a project of his own, albeit with more inclusion of others to keep him in check. As for the Smiths, I can see what they wanted to do here and it is admirable. Will Smith gives it his all performance-wise and Jaden is coming into his own, but the story is lacking. While After Earth is not a disaster, there is an absence of more spark to make the film rise above being mostly ponderous, despite presenting a strong father-son relationship base. If the idea is to create a new franchise, I hope future installments have more to chew on.
Cypher Raige: Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Now do not misunderstand me, danger is very real. But fear is a choice.