AFTER EARTH (2013)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane
I have to admit I was pretty surprised to discover AFTER EARTH (2013) hadn’t yet been reviewed by our illustrious staff here at Cinema Knife Fight. They must have assumed that I’d eventually break my writing silence and review it, seeing as how I’m one of the remnant of M. Night Shyamalan fans. Yes, many of you might be surprised that AFTER EARTH is more than just a Will Smith (I AM LEGEND, 2007, INDEPENDANCE DAY , 1996) vehicle. The film is written and directed by one of my favorite directors, who created some of my favorite horror/sci-fi films, including THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and SIGNS (2002), but after a series of underwhelming (to the general audience) films like DEVIL (2010) and THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010), the marketing department for his newest film decided that his name not only doesn’t sell tickets, it might hurt, at least until he can build up a resume of new hits under his belt.
Although I enjoyed AFTER EARTH sometimes for reasons other than its predictable plot (the primary being I watched it with my son Andrew who’s getting ready to head out to the Big City to find his way through the perils of corporate life), overall I was sadly underwhelmed by the movie. But it’s a great father/son bonding film. It’s sweet in some ways, as well.
But, as far as plot development and the overall script, I’m afraid the film is lacking on many levels.
I did say M Night Shyamalan is my favorite director, and he is. In fact I’d go as far as to say he’s one of the best. That being said, he is by far not the best screenwriters in the business. I will make one assumption based on the “Story by Will Smith” which scrolled across the screen at the end: perhaps Smith did more than come up with the overall story and actually wrote the bulk of the script, then had Shyamalan clean it up and make it look pretty. But if that’s the case Shyamalan should have told Smith the story was weak. Actually, the main issue was more that it was predictable. I knew (as did Andrew and most of the folks in the theater) what would happen in the climactic scene. Everything in the opening scenes existed only to point to this, and not nearly as subtly as THE SIXTH SENSE.
During a very hurried opening scene we learn that something bad happened to the earth ecologically, things went from bad to worse and the human race had to leave the planet to survive (in this way it opened much like this year’s OBLIVION, minus the invasion). Our technology had advanced enough (we assume) that we could settle on a remote system’s star using warp technology and now live on a decent planet with very little vegetation, red rocks, and cliffs. Very, well, Red Rocks-ish. Now, there was some other point about an alien race that did not like us, and decided to wipe us out by genetically engineering these man (and woman) eating monsters called Ursas which are blind (OK, so not the brightest aliens), but instead track humans through fear. The explanation for this worked OK, so let’s go with it. Over time, a number of human soldiers learned to master the art of fearlessness—feeling no fear, at all, and thus becoming invisible to the monsters. They began to teach others this technique while using this new blind spot to begin wiping the creatures out. They still exist, in limited numbers. It is never explained if more are being made or bred, or where the aliens are now…. again, the opening recap was pretty quick and hard to follow.
Oh, Will Smith’s character Cypher was one of the first to master this ability of feeling no fear after a near death experience. He’s a General now, a “war” hero and loved by many. He also seems to have carried his lack of fear into other personalities, like love and affection. Not that he doesn’t love his family, he just acts a bit stiff around, well everyone, including his son.
This is an interesting trademark of most Shyamalan films. His leading man is always played to near-stiff perfection. Bruce Willis’s character both in THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE (2000) never smiled and spoke quietly, in an almost monotone manner. Mel Gibson’s fallen priest in SIGNS, though obviously a little depressed, had deadpan expressions most of the way through (as did his brother played by Joaquin Phoenix… however that name’s spelled), and walked around with his arms limp at his side like they were bound. I remember distinctly watching SIGNS (and loving it, by the way) and thinking that someday Shyamalan would have to cast William Hurt because the man is known for his deadpan, even-handed approach to leading-man-ishness (enter M’s next film, THE VILLAGE, 2004, starring Mister Hurt himself). So, seeing the usually animated Will Smith playing a quiet, introspective, emotionally-repressed father in AFTER EARTH came as no surprise.
Let’s give credit where it’s due to Smith and his son Jaden, who plays Cypher’s son Kitai. I think they both did a tremendous job with the roles they were assigned. Jaden played a whiny, needy teenaged boy, and did it well. I’ve seen him in the remake of the KARATE KID (2010) and THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) when he was younger and I know the kid can act. The problem with his character is they really pushed the “fearful child” angle (and his father feels no fear now, giving us the father/son angst angle, replacing sports or overachieving). Will Smith plays his quiet, brooding father well, keeping his cool but loving his son dearly. Cypher battles a slowly growing “sudden fear” —of his own death, but mostly his son’s—as the movie progresses, mostly through cracks in his expressions and delayed stares. I know people have said his acting was wooden and stilted, but I disagree. For the part he and Shyamalan gave him, he did very good.
Unfortunately, the movie itself is neither original nor interesting enough to take such talent and make it truly shine. Smith’s Cypher takes his son with him on a routine transfer of a captured Ursa (one of the monsters) to some moon station where his men can practice not being afraid (and thus being invisible). An asteroid shower causes damage to the hull and after jumping into a worm hole to escape the asteroid, they end up outside of Earth (somehow, some preset location, the closest habitable planet?) but are too damaged to turn back. The ship breaks up on entry into the atmosphere. The crew is all killed, except for Smith & Smith. And the captured monster, which escapes and is seen no more (until, as you all have guessed, the climactic scene of the film).
Smith, Sr. is injured, resulting in Smith, Jr. needing to travel alone through some beautiful, lush terrain to reach the tail section of the ship to retrieve a homing beacon. The Earth they are marooned on is no longer destroyed, in fact it doesn’t look like anything is wrong with it. There were earlier comments before crashing that everything on the planet has adapted itself to be fatal to humans, a way for a dying Earth to rid itself of its biggest threat. My son Andrew had a good point, maybe AFTER EARTH was a sequel to THE HAPPENING (2008) where nature decides to kill humans by making them kill themselves. Maybe. However, there really wasn’t any of this fatal-to-humans stuff, except for some slugs which secrete a poison, and extremely cold temperatures at night. The rest are natural predators like baboons (in a pack or solo they can be dangerous, and Smith, Jr. threatens them), and lions.
Smith, Sr. is able to follow Jr. and act as his guide via a comm-link along this adventure, much like a Dad can be a mentor and guide for his son off to college or moving to the Big City via Skype or cell phone. As they move along there is the requisite bonding that takes place. Not as much as I expected, at least they made the Dad change only a little—they’re on the planet for a couple days max as it is. Complications happen, but I never felt too worried for the characters because everything was happening too by-the-numbers for my taste, the threats simply not threatening enough. One “danger” Smith, Jr. faced even ends up being a mode of rescue later. This particular detail I expected early on, but how it was done I thought was kind of cool, as kitschy as some people might possibly think it is executed.
So in the end, I’m saddened that my favorite director guy M Night Shyamalan made a movie I was less than impressed with (alongside DEVIL and the second half of THE LADY IN THE WATER, 2006). But there were some positive experiences in the movie—Smith Sr.’s acting, as understated as it was, and good visuals (alongside some iffy CGI moments, such as when Smith, Jr.’s flashbacks to how his sister died at the hands/claw of an Ursa in their home). Overall I think the director should stick to what he does so well, direct, and leave the writing to people who do that well (and as much as I really enjoy almost everything Will Smith is in, I think he should be kept away from the typewriter, too, if this is the result). Or at least, someone tell him what’s wrong before it goes any further than the screenplay. I’d hate to think someone of Shyamalan’s caliber doesn’t listen to honest criticism. Maybe Smith doesn’t. If it’s been done too many times before, if it’s predictable, someone should have spotted this and corrected it, not just rushed it to the distributor because of the star power, or marketing’s need to get it in print by Father’s Day.
It is a good movie to see with your boys, though, for a belated Father’s Day present..
So, reluctantly, I give my buddy M Night Shyamalan’s newest film one of two possible ratings:
As a standalone science fiction film with a large budget, major movie stars and directed by MNS: 2 out of 5 Father Figures.
As a movie—to rent—and watch with your kids, make it 2.5
That’s about it. Nice to be back here in these fine pages, and special congrats to our fearless leader, L.L. Soares, for taking home the Superior Achievement in a First Novel Stoker for his very original debut, LIFE RAGE. Nice job, my friend. You earned it.
© Copyright 2013 by Daniel G. Keohane