The years have not been kind to M. Night Shyamalan. Since exploding onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, the director’s rise and fall has essentially been vertical. Films like The Last Airbender and The Happening have turned him into a human scratching post, and thus it’s hard to differentiate where the Shyamalan hate ends and the review of his movies begin.
As such I went into this film with a mind as open as can be, and I’ll have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. But that may have had nothing to do with M. Night Shyamalan.
I live under no delusions that After Earth is not just the next strategic corporate move of Smith Inc, with patriarchal CEO Will trying to prove that his son Jaden is a chip off the ol’ West Philadelphia block. The film’s screenplay, credited to Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, is actually even based on a story by Will Smith and he also produced the film alongside his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith. In short, a true family affair (I was surprised that Willow Smith didn’t show up at some point to tell some aliens to whip their heads back and forth).
And you know what? I really couldn’t care. Apparently other people who’ve seen After Earth do care though. They care very much. Which is why you will find review after review bashing Smith for wanting to make his child a success. But my job is not to discuss nepotism in Hollywood, I’m just here to tell you whether this movie-film-thing is worth changing out of your comfy pants and levering your backside off the couch for.
So let me just say straight off that After Earth is certainly not the greatest celluloid reason you could find for braving this whole “outside” thing, but it sure as hell isn’t the worst either. Sure it has its faults, but I certainly didn’t find it to be the merit-less and lifeless corpse of a film that it’s being made out to be.
For one thing, the world created by Smith and co may decide to give science the raspberry at times, but it certainly is a rather different and unique vision of the future. Production and art design boast an unexpected aesthetic, with spaceships and high tech homes having more in common with ancient Egyptian feluccas than the chrome-plated everything look of the future that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing.
The history of this cotton-covered world, as explained by Jaden’s rickety, puberty-stricken voice, says that in the future humans inevitably damage Earth beyond repair, and led by a military order known as the Rangers, eventually decide to see if the grass is less apocalyptic on the other side. That side being the generically named Nova Prime, a faraway planet that humanity settles on. However, Nova Prime’s natives are not so friendly, crying havok and letting slip their own dogs of war: Ursas; surprisingly non-bear creatures that are all snapping jaws and CGI. Ursas are almost completely blind and hunt by pheromones, specifically the type humans give off when they’re afraid.
Enter stage left, ludicrously named Cypher Raige (Will Smith), the very first Ranger to “ghost” – ridding yourself of all fear, effectively becoming invisible to the Ursas – and using his magic sword-amajig (projectile weapons of any kind seem to be pistola non grata in the future, because reasons, I guess) kills his way to the military top spot and legendary status.
Unfortunately his Ranger cadet son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is not living up to the high family standard. And to make matters worse his dad shows him about as much affection as he would a block of cheese. Cue father-son road trip to a training facility on another planet, trussed up Ursa in tow for some ghosting practice.
As is expected with these types of things though, the trip is cut short by a freak asteroid storm to the spaceship-face, resulting in a crash landing on Earth, which has apparently spent the last 1000 human-free years evolving into a rather beautiful, giant death trap. With the Raiges as the only two survivors of the crash, and Cypher’s legs all mangled up, it’s now up to Kitai to make the dangerous trek across the planet to where the tail end of the ship (containing an emergency beacon) came down, with nobody to keep him company but the overbearing voice of his father.
And if you can’t figure out how the next 90 minutes of the film turns out, then you’re clearly new at this whole movie business.
It’s all paint by numbers scripting, that I won’t deny, and the plot structure is more akin to a videogame, with Cypher giving Kitai his next objective, after leading him to “save point” hot spots every night. But while it lacks originality and surprise, the action is actually pretty decent, as we get treated to a couple of tense chase sequences and frantic fights courtesy of the not-so-friendly local wildlife.
And when Jaden Smith is not running away from future-baboons or fighting tiger-wolf-hybrids with sticks, he spends his time mastering the art of looking like you’re always about to cry. To be fair though, as the reasons behind the strained relationship between father and son is revealed, the young actor does a reasonably decent job of selling it.
Smith Senior has to do some selling of his own as well, as he plays a character completely against type. Cypher is like that most stoic and stonefaced of military men, never showing emotion and barking more than talking. Coupled with the fact that due to a couple of snapped bones, Smith is confined to sitting in a chair talking to a screen for most of the movie, it means that he needs to do a whole lot with the four facial expressions and buzzcut that he’s been given to work with. It’s a total departure from his normal effortless charm and rubber-faced antics, and is all deathly serious, leading to some calling Smith Senior’s performance “dull” and “po-faced” but I feel it works in the context of the character.
Now you may have noticed that after starting this review by talking about M. Night Shyamalan, I haven’t really mentioned him since then. That’s because just like on all the posters and trailers, the M.Night we know and dread is barely there. This is both a good and bad thing.
Some of the director’s more sillier tendencies are nowhere to be found, but the overall direction has a perfunctory, journeyman feel to it. There’s nothing outright criminal being committed here – hell, Shyamalan even manages the occasional sweeping cinematic shot that gives you some pause, and the man can certainly ratchet up tension to uncomfortable levels when needed – but there’s just no individual signature or flair to make it stand out in a year that’s packed to the rafters with movies about apocalyptic Earths, post- or otherwise.
And that’s essentially After Earth’s story for the most part. It has great artistic touches, with an interestingly realized world and decent enough performances and action beats, but is sold slightly short through a lack of narrative ambition and direction that lacks any defining identity.
M. Night Shymalan’s long awaited redemption this certainly is not, but look pass his mud-splattered name and the global domination plans of the Smith clan and you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse for some low-rent entertainment.
Last Updated: June 20, 2013