After Earth review

will after earth 11dec12

Examining director M. Night Shyamalan’s career, I find myself pondering whether there’s something more behind the confusing path it’s taken. From the iconic The Sixth Sense to the critically brutalized The Last Airbender, an obvious and unwavering pattern of artistic decline has formed for reasons that elude me.

And, yet, I found myself excited to see “After Earth”. It’s bizarre, really. But I expect this is how many people feel when they hear about the next Shyamalan project. He shocked us with some well-crafted twists and turns in his first few movies that, I don’t know, maybe we expect similar thrills even though he’s let us down for years. Maybe hope is what brings us back again and again. The premises always seem just interesting enough for us to say, “Hey, maybe this is the one that’ll bring ‘em back.” Is it possible that Shyamalan is banking on this? Is he doing it on purpose? For a director who prides himself on ‘the twist ending’, perhaps this is his ultimate twist. I might be reading too much into it, although his latest film at least supports the pattern of decline.

After Earth is a bland, empty film that has roots in the sci-fi, action and adventure genres and fails to be a good example of any one of them. You may feel empty yourself leaving the movie theatre. It simply lacks any sense of importance or conceivable reason for being…besides money.

At the start of the movie, we’re told that at some point in the near-future people will leave Earth due to environmental problems and settle on a planet called Nova Prime. A thousand years later, an alien race intends on conquering Nova Prime with the help of Ursas, creatures that resemble smaller versions of the “Cloverfield” alien and hunt by sensing fear. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) leads The Ranger Corps to victory upon learning how to completely suppress his fear, a technique called ‘ghosting’. If ‘ghosting’ is simply overcoming fear (essentially bravery) why not just say that? Why express it in this way? If we were told that Cypher went through hell to achieve this technique, or was just very brave, then he may have been a more interesting and sympathetic character. But it’s treated like a tool or power if you will. And what a boring power that is.

Even after this exposition, Smith’s character never earns our sympathy. He’s a stern man and father and not much else. He’s hard on his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), who’s just flunked out of the Ranger Corp for being reckless. But this never feels like merely tough love; he genuinely seems like an angry man who has disdain for his son. He sounds unnatural when he demands better manners from his Kitai, sometimes shockingly so. You just don’t buy it when the usually goofy Smith Sr has to be a micro-managing authoritarian. He’s sidelined for much of the film and must provide instruction to Kitai via communicator, which is fitting because Will Smith’s performance is also phoned in. By the end of the film, he’s pretty much stopped caring.

Following an uncomfortable dinner, Cypher’s wife, Faia (Sophie Okonedo), convinces him to take Kitai on one of his voyages for some bonding. The voyage is cut short by asteroids and the ship crashes, leaving the pair as the only survivors. No spoilers here: the planet on which they crash is Earth. It seems like Shyamalan purposely leaves this detail for the beginning of the film to show that he’s about more than just ‘twists’ and to avoid comparisons to works like The Planet of the Apes. It matters little. We learn that Cypher’s legs are broken and Kitai must journey through a planet, whose flora and fauna have become increasingly hostile through the years, to reach the tail section of the ship and send out a rescue signal.

From here on, the focus shifts to the younger Smith. And it’s sad considering the boy has a long way to go before he has the acting skills and screen presence to carry a film of such magnitude. He seems overwhelmed by the pressures of the big budget film. Few things happen between one section of the ship and the other save for Kitai’s run-ins with hostile animals, and endless shots of him running through the jungle. There are some flashbacks of an event that occurred during the war with the aliens that plague Kitai during his quest, but they add nowhere near the dramatic weight that Shyamalan and co-writer Will Smith intend.

Yes, Will Smith has a ‘story’ credit for this film. You have to hand it to the actor for expanding horizons that seriously need expansion. But, sadly, the weakest link is the film’s script. This is apparent for most of Shyamalan’s films. But if you look purely at his direction of certain scenes there’s quite a bit to praise. There’s a scene in After Earth where Kitai is being dragged by, we’ll say something, and the screen becomes almost black and white and the camera comes to ground level and produces a jerking, stop/start effect to simulate the action. Like many scenes in Shyamalan’s other films, this effect is chilling and suspenseful. Even the score is an eerie composition of eclectic tribal-sounding percussion which brings to mind, again, the first act of The Planet of the Apes and the dread of the unknown. But these effects aren’t enough to sustain a story that rests on overly transparent themes and dialogue that never rings true. Even the father/son dynamic, on which this film so heavily relies, doesn’t work because we don’t really care about the father, son or any bond between them.

It doesn’t even succeed in the ‘mindless action’ category because it still pretends to have a mind and there’s little action. Conflicts between Kitai and the animals are only mildly exciting, and the poorly choreographed final conflict is a hard lesson in anticlimax. The lingering sense that something more sinister or cerebral will be added to the story goes unrealized, so negates the pleasure of watching one of those films that’s so bad it’s actually good. Through its tone, it promises so much, but delivers so little. And Shyamalan will continue this practice for years to come.

Grade: F

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