'After Earth' isn't nearly as bad as you've heard - until the last 20 minutes, that is
After Earth Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo and Zoë Kravitz
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Opened May 31, 2013
(out of four)
After Earth is an interesting case study in conflicting intentions. It is a small-scale survival
movie dressed up in blockbuster clothing. It is a minimalist adventure story that somehow feels
obligated to include a giant, anachronistic CGI alien. It is a drama, but one that reluctantly tries
to be something bigger.
It's been reported that the original concept was a father/son story set in the aftermath of a car
accident in the mountains, an idea Will Smith then expanded into something more marketable
and franchise-friendly. If that's true, it puts the final product into a conspicuously intriguing
context, because what works about After Earth is the elemental struggle inherent to any survival
tale. The sci-fi aspect adds some nice wrinkles to it (a "smart fabric" suit that adjusts to the
changes in temperature; familiar-looking but evolutionarily evolved wildlife), but it's more or
less the same scenario it would have been in a present-day storyline. A fearful boy stranded in
the wilderness, forced to brave the elements to save the lives of him and his father.
When it's trying to be just that, the film succeeds. But then, suddenly, it stops. The third act rolls
around, and with it the superfluous injection of a piece of fakery that completely disrupts the
atmosphere of the first hour or so. There's an abrupt shift from existential character mode to Sci-Fi Action Epic mode, and it does not go smoothly. The worst part is, the third act doesn't even
succeed on its own terms; instead, it reduces the central character's entire journey to an action-movie trope. Yes, the climactic sequence plays into the film's thematic and emotional arc, but
not in any way that couldn't have been accomplished - and accomplished in better, truer fashion
- with a simpler, subtler narrative choice.
Essentially, the film abandons its greatest strengths in favor of something more superficially
"exciting," but utterly disposable. It's at this point we have to wonder: What could this have
been if Will Smith were not the one pulling the strings? If it didn't have to carry the
responsibility of being a Will Smith Summer Movie? How much more of this incarnation of
Earth - which in the years since mankind's departure has evolved to repel and kill humans -
could we have explored? How much deeper could we have dug into this fractured relationship
between father and son?
That relationship, and the son's coming-of-age, is really what the story is all about - one of
many reasons why it could have eschewed genre expectations altogether and come to the same
conclusions. As it is, the film is set 1,000 years on the future, with humanity long having
deserted Earth and relocated to Nova Prime, a desert-like planet whose primary threat to humans
are the Ursas - huge, snarling, sightless monsters who prey on the scent of fear. General Cypher
Raige (Will Smith) - a commanding officer in the peacekeeping Ranger Corps - has mastered
the art of "ghosting," eliminating every ounce of fear from his being, thus making himself
invisible to the Ursas.
His 13-year-old son Kitai (Jaden Smith) has no such ability,
but he's got courage and arrogance, and longs to follow in his father's legendary footsteps
despite not having much of a relationship with him. When Cypher takes his son on a seemingly
ordinary interstellar voyage, the ship crash-lands on Earth, incidentally leaving those two as the
only survivors. Both of General Raige's legs are broken, as is the emergency beacon in the
cockpit. The only other way off this planet - the only means for survival - is the other beacon,
located in the tail section of the plane 100 kilometers away. Cypher tasks his son with making
the treacherous journey across the jungle, where Kitai will be forced to confront fears he barely
knew he had in the first place.
It's difficult to be aware of After Earth at this point without also being aware of the toxic reviews
and word-of-mouth that have accompanied it. Much of the discussion has centered around the
fact that the movie's very existence is the result of the biggest movie star in the world wanting to
give his son a star-making vehicle. The cynicism is understandable. And certainly the film's
director, M. Night Shyamalan, hasn't earned much goodwill with his recent output.
But it's Shyamalan who deserves a lot of credit for After Earth's successes. On a technical level,
this is an extremely sure-handed piece of direction. As he has in his best work, he expertly
manages the film's tone (at least for the first hour-plus) and casts a haunting, mournful spell,
buoyed by an outstanding score by James Newton Howard (as usual).
Consider the visual composition of Kitai's darkest recurring memory - him as a young boy,
shrouded in a small enclosure, the terrifying, tragic event he witnessed being reflected on the
glass, distorted both by the curvature of the glass and the trauma of the remembrance. Or how
about the graceful serenity of the scene on the riverbed, as Kitai drifts off to sleep while being
warmed by a dream about his kind older sister, only to be jolted awake by the slow crawl of
fear? Shyamalan creates some genuinely stirring moments, captivating in the pastoral beauty of
the setting and in the subtle cues of the camerawork and sound design. This is Shyamalan's best
directorial work in years.
Even before the disastrous third act, the film had its share of
flaws. The story falls into video-game conventions - with Kitai seemingly going from
checkpoint to checkpoint, picking up and losing life-saving accessories or weapons, fighting off
one creature here, another there - and as many others have pointed out, the narrative as a whole,
a thinly veiled Scientology parable, is perhaps too didactic.
As for Jaden Smith, who is alone on screen for much of the film, the performance is a mixed bag.
His line readings are frequently awful (it's as if he's self-consciously trying to hang on to his
character's odd accent while spitting out each line as quickly as possible, resulting in a strange
slurring effect) and at times he mistakes "looking scared" for "looking constipated," but he's a
capable physical actor who's up for the challenges of the role, and he handles a couple of big
emotional moments quite nicely. Clearly he's not the best choice for the role, but it's not exactly
a Susan Alexander situation, either. The movie makes do.
For much of the film, in fact, I was pleasantly surprised, and was fully prepared to refute the bad
buzz swirling around it. But the final 20-minute section is so disappointingly unimaginative - a
dull digression completely antithetical to the delicate tone of the rest of the film. Two-thirds of a
good movie is better than nothing, but when you know it could have, should have, been more,
that two-thirds winds up feeling like a whole lot less.