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After Earth (2013)

June 1, 2013

afterearthposter

 

written by: M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (screenplay) & Will Smith (story) 

produced by: Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith & James Lassiter

directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and some disturbing images) 

runtime: 100 min.

U.S. release date: May 31, 2013

 

Less than two months ago, we saw Tom Cruise maintain a ravaged future Earth in “Oblivion”, a sci-fi film made by the writer/director of “TRON Legacy”. Now, we have “After Earth” in which Will Smith and his son Jaden must survive an inhospitable Earth. Earlier this year, moviegoers saw trailers for both these films play back to back in theaters. It was a dystopian sci-fi double whammy that felt like variations of the same movie. “After Earth” was the one that filled me with trepidation though, since it was made by M. Night Shyamalan – hey now, don’t roll your eyes! Doesn’t every filmmaker deserve a fifth chance?

Unfortunately, he’s a long way off from his last good movie, “Signs”, from back in 2001, but that doesn’t make “After Earth” as bad as critics are making it out to be. Compared to Shyamalan’s recent output, this is definitely a step-up from the abysmal “The Last Airbender” (the worst film of 2010) and “The Happening”  a flat and boring endeavor from 2008 that had a promising premise, but didn’t live up to its title.

Needless to say, I had remained hesitant to subject myself to another Shayamalan debacle (even if he’s just writing – I’m lookin’ at you “Devil”), but it’s important to judge each movie on it’s own merit, free of any predisposed notions about “an M. Night Shayamalan film”, leaving all built-in apprehensions at the door. At least that’s what I aim for going into a movie, but even my low expectations for “After Earth” couldn’t help me from seeing its shortcomings.

A thousand years in the future, mankind has abandoned Earth after running it into the ground and leaving it a polluted mess. We’ve migrated to space and found a far away planet we’ve labeled Nova Prime and managed to kill off the indigenous creatures called Ursa in the name of colonization. These alien monsters hunt their prey by picking up the scent of fear, which has led only a few military rangers to master “ghosting”  the ability to remove any trace of fear, rendering themselves invisible to any opponent. Such a superhero is Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a celebrated ranger with a stiff disposition and a monotone delivery. Living under such an overwhelming reputation is his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has excelled in every area of ranger school except the crucial combat field work, which means he won’t be a perfect weapon like his pop and he definitely doesn’t qualify to be a ranger.

 

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The boy is as hard on himself about all this as he is about the death of his older sister, Senshie (played in flashback scenes by Zoë Isabella Kravitz) when he was younger. His mother, Faia (Sophie Okonedo) has to help her husband see the boy’s pain and persuades Cypher to take his son with him on his final mission, which is to transfer a contained-yet-deadly Ursa (for some unclear reason – a teaching tool for cadets?), as a bonding voyage. Definitely not an optimal situation for a father/son retreat.

When their stingray-shaped space vessel is damaged in an asteroid field, the ship breaks apart and crash lands on Earth, leaving only two survivors: Cypher with his two broken legs and an able-bodied Katai, who is visibly freaked out. Since most of the needed equipment around them is damaged, it us up to Katai to locate the tail of the ship which will contain a working homing beacon that can be used to send out a galactic flare into space. So, it’s up to a fearful and insecure yet smart young man to trek out into dangerous terrain to save himself and his militant father. Left immobile, Cypher must use the audio and visual at his disposal to navigate Kitai through savage animals, poisonous toxins and deadly thermal shifts. If only his son would listen to him and his psycho babble about fear and danger.

“After Earth” starts out abruptly, with booming sound effects and a clanging score by James Newton Howard that immediately places us in the peril that both father and son are facing. Then we shift backward and are given a slide show of the calamities that destroyed Earth as we know it as Jaden provides an annoying narration which breaks it all down for us. It’s annoying because it’s hard to understand what he’s saying, he doesn’t seem that interested in what he’s saying (sounds like a typical teen boy, so kudos for naturalness) and he’s speaking in a bizarre accent. Needless to say I couldn’t recall or repeat any exposition this young actor relayed to me.

Now this was all in the first fifteen or so minutes, which wasn’t encouraging my expectations finding any form of reversal. And then I was subjected to more bad accents. No, it wasn’t just Katai sounding like I do after chewing all the ice in my drink. I found myself chuckling at actor Glenn Morshower (known for played countless military types, in the “Transformers” movies and most memorable as Aaron Pierce in Fox’s “24” series) – oh my, was it fun to see him warble his way through this crazy, indecipherable accent, sounding like a live-action Elmer Fudd.

 

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There’s a certain ripcord effect to the way characters talk in “After Earth”, but the way they behave is even more baffling. There’s a bizarre scene on board the ship that has a group of cadets goading a too curious Katai into fear while explaining what the human body does as it builds into full-blown fear. For all their effort, the screenwriters (I’d really like to know what aspect Will Smith came up with) and the actors do try to make this “ghosting” seem like The Force. But that just doesn’t happen. We just get hit over the head with it. Over and over. It doesn’t take long for all the talk about fear to become repetitive and redundant. It definitely turned my fear into annoyance. Maybe my take of “ghosting” was almost becoming numb to the ineptness of the “phony religion” this movie offers. If I had to hear Cypher tell his son to “Take a knee” as some form of zen awareness meditation one more time, I would’ve taken both of mine out of the theater.

Once again, like in many a Shyamalan movie – this is just not the way people talk (let alone act) in real life. I get that this is a different time and a different environment, but can’t human behavior make sense? Did Katai’s mother really think it would be a good idea for her fragile son to go on a potentially dangerous mission with an out-of-touch father? Couldn’t they just go fishing, or whatever the equivalent would be 1000 years from now? Can’t Cypher and Katai show any sign of a father/son relationship instead of brief interactive moments that feel like Will and Jaden are acting together?

The way Will Smith embodies his Cypher Raige (what a name) with this stoic and cold father stereotype comes across as unfortunate and borderline laughable. All quite unintentional, I’m sure. Moviegoers expecting “a Will Smith movie” will not only be surprised that the actor is sidelined by his son, but also be disappointed that he plays such a one-dimensional, uninteresting character. Who cares what he’s known for – who is he?

I’m not gonna pick apart Jaden’s obvious need for improvement in the acting department, since this is the kid’s fourth feature film. In “After Earth”,  his eyebrows arched (see poster, which looks like “House Party 6”) in the same doggone emotive position through just about the entire movie. Obviously, he’s green and still needs years of experience to hone his craft. Regardless, Jaden cannot carry or headline a film on his own. Even with his dad there to guide him, the two are separated through most of the movie, which doesn’t help Young Smith. So much for nepotism. Unlike other critics, I think it’s unfair to write the kid off entirely (or spew such vitriol his way) seeing how early it still is in his career. All I can do is evaluate his acting in each film he does.

The studios involved are doing everything they can to divert attention to Shyamalan’s name in the promotion of this movie. It’s understandable why, but that doesn’t undo what’s been done. While, it does feel like a Smith-heavy movie (even Jada and her brother were involved), there are still predictable Shyamalan touches that are unavoidable.

And above all, that’s exactly the downfall of “After Earth”. It is a very very very predictable movie. I saw everything coming before it hit the screen. I predicted how each plot point would play out later on, knew Besides having stiff and flat actors playing one-note characters, it is the movie’s lack of surprise or originality which is its biggest downfall. It can still be visually interesting and at times, legitimately thrilling, but when every aspect met my presumptions, it took the wind out of my viewing enjoyment.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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