Summer turns out not to be the most friendly time of the year – especially when you are a film. The competition is fierce and all kinds of high-budget productions roam the screens in search for box office revenue. Therefore, if you are not a superhero flick or a high-profile Sci-Fi (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), you’re bound to be fighting an uphill battle to break even. The struggle is even harder if your director seems to be cursed. Therefore, I think ‘mixed feelings’ is the most polite way I could describe my state of mind when I was about to watch “After Earth” this afternoon.
Normally, if somebody told me that a name like Will Smith was just attached to the upcoming summer Sci-Fi flick, I’d be in all kinds of heaven. Let’s face it – his name is almost a brand at this point with titles like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “I, Robot”, “MiB” virtually guaranteeing high octane entertainment and phenomenal box office turnover. Normally… but “After Earth” was not supposed to be normal, not by a long shot… Because this film was being created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself – and once you mention his name in public, everybody starts staring at you, as if you just farted in a church or something. I don’t intend to digress too much here, because I already have it planned for a different occasion, but one thing was clear the minute I learned Shyamalan was helming this upcoming Sci-Fi film with Will Smith in it – it was going to be something else entirely. And I wasn’t far off in the end, but not the way I anticipated.
There are a bunch of little things that make up the bulk of “After Earth”, but the general concept can be summarized in the following way: at some point in the future, the mankind has finally succeeded in destroying the planet. Therefore, humans had to evacuate Earth and move their civilization somewhere else – to a planet called Nova Prime, which is of course capable of supporting life. In order to organize the move and later to protect the people from various threats, an organisation called The Ranger Corps was brought to life where the finest warriors could play their part in keeping the mankind safe.
Fast forward one thousand years; Nova Prime settlements have been troubled by an alien race that uses monsters that sense fear to hunt down humans, and only thanks to General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) the Rangers were able to turn the tide of the war. It turns out that Cypher learned how to dismiss fear entirely thus making himself completely invisible to Ursas (the fear-sensing monsters). Once he started teaching other rangers how to master his skill, everything was more or less fine again and Cypher returned home a hero.
Now, back at home his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying desperately to become a ranger himself in order to prove his worth to the very distant father – and he fails, not because he lacks skill, but he has problems following orders and keeping in line. Understandably, Cypher being the military-type strict type of father is utterly disappointed in his son and the gap between the two keeps widening. Only because Kitai’s mom convinces Cypher to cut the kid some slack, he decides to take him on what is supposed to be his last mission before retiring – a perfect opportunity for the two to have some time to bond. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan and mid-voyage their spaceship gets badly damaged by an asteroid and crashes on Earth (quite conveniently; it is somehow explained in the dialogue, but I can’t recall the details now). The only problem is that Earth after a thousand years without humans is a dangerous place to live in – completely taken over by blood-thirsty animals that look at people the way people look at bacon.
It then turns out that Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash (with Cypher being badly injured) and the only way for them to contact their compatriots is to find a distress beacon that crashed somewhere else – a perfect opportunity for young Kitai to prove to his father once and for all that he could be a Ranger. In order to achieve that, however, Kitai will have to face all kinds of deadly animals, rapidly changing weather and an Ursa that had their ship had carried before it crashed.
Now that I have seen this film I can honestly say that M. Night Shyamalan felt a bit out of his depth developing a high-concept science fiction film and, as a result, “After Earth” is a very chaotic and uneven experience. Note here that I am specifically trying to use neutral wording in order to avoid jumping on the hate train. I realize it would have been much easier for me to go on a rant here and join the crowd, but I feel it would be unfair on my part, because – all things considered – I quite liked the film with all its flaws and shortcomings. Correction: not so much liked it, but I didn’t dislike it, if that makes any sense.
I believe it is only logical to start with the good bits. First of all, I think the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith will remain one of the strongest points of the film in general. For one thing, they naturally have some good chemistry going and most of the scenes with both of them in the room have this weird tension – in a good way. However, we don’t get to see those too much in the film, as the bulk of “After Earth” is simply Jaden running around alone in the jungle with his father watching his every step from the safety of the wreckage. Jaden on his own acts nowhere near as good as when he is with his dad and no amount of Will Smith’s solid acting could possibly make up for that fact.
The contraptions used by the characters are also nice additions to the film. From the biologically inspired design of the spaceship with its bone-like skeleton, squishy buttons and tissue-like membranes for doors, through the mutating suit worn by Kitai, all the way up to the shape-shifting Ranger weapon – all the props in the film are designed very interestingly. Also, the CG modelling of the Ursa was quite clever, although the concept alone of a creature that finds its prey by tracking its fear was a tad underdeveloped.
Well, that’s all, folks… I like the premise of the film as well and I secretly hoped it would trump the ghastly “Oblivion”, but “After Earth” didn’t quite deliver. While the concept alone was more or less OK and maybe I could buy it, in the end the film offered a bit too much bulls**t to swallow in one go. I really dug the political commentary of how the planet will force us out and make sure we don’t come back, but I feel the script (co-written by Shyamalan again) would have been better if it was developed by someone experienced in designing universes from the foundations up, so that it would be actually believable and not full of gaping holes. Even though most of Shyamalan’s films involve supernatural elements, he clearly is not cut out for a job of that calibre. As much as I like the guy and understand where he’s coming from, “After Earth” ended up smothering him completely. When it comes to twists and turns and putting the characters in peril, that’s all fine and, even though it is rather expected for the characters to come out alive, he had me sitting at the edge of my seat quite a few times.
Nonetheless, a good sci-fi needs a bit more than that. While it was perfectly OK for “The Sixth Sense” to concentrate on only two characters and more importantly on fooling the viewers, “After Earth” needed a completely different approach – one that it never got. It almost looked, as though Shyamalan was forced to direct it without being able to think it through, because neither the character dynamic is established well enough to drive the film, nor the sci-fi aspect is compelling enough to be believable. A good sci-fi either requires a fully established mythos that breathes life into the world, or it needs to be completely cut off and self-contained – with no middle ground. The middle ground is where the mediocre sci-fi films go to die. Of course, it is more than welcome to expand on the cut-off variation and introduce the world in sequels or in lateral plot points, but unfortunately “After Earth” cannot be successfully assigned to any of these categories. In the end, Shyamalan tried to cook two dishes at once and he burned them both.
And I haven’t even touched on the leaps in logic and poor understanding of science that served as foundation for the entire universe in the film. I think “After Earth” would have benefited from a bit more science and less fiction. Maybe it takes a mere thousand years for the earth to go completely green again with oxygen levels being weirdly too low for humans to breath comfortably! Photosynthesis much? Also, how can anything evolve to kill humans if the humans are not around any more? It’s impossible by definition and a thousand years is nowhere near enough for anything to evolve into anything else. Luckily, the animals in the movie look mostly normal… Clearly, nobody over there knew how to tackle Sci-Fi properly. Since we live in the 21st century, we require our Sci-Fi to be properly done and fancy costumes and spaceships don’t cut it any longer.
I dare say that “After Earth” was most probably an ‘all or nothing’ move from M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the Smith family who produced the picture kept pushing the studio to film their project and Shyamalan’s name was attached to it, because no-one else would do it… I don’t know, but the entire thing smells fishy to me. I mean, it is not even a full-blown Shyamalan movie, but it’s truncated surrogate and I can only explain it by thinking that the producers had more to say about what goes in the movie than the director would have liked. Therefore, I think it’s unfair to flog poor Shyamalan any longer, because it might not have been his fault entirely for what “After Earth” ended up being. Love it or hate it, but this guy has his style of story-telling and in here I could barely see it, as if somebody explicitly told him not to do what he knows best…
In short, “After Earth” looks like a collection of clichés and well-worn ideas slapped together for the benefit of Will Smith and his son, dressed in poorly engineered universe and thrown into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan for him to make something coherent of it. A good artist can make music using anything for an instrument, but it won’t be a symphony… Don’t get me wrong, there are some good moments in the film and once the ball is rolling, the story develops some suspense (and this is what Shyamalan really knows how to do), but Sci-Fi needs more than that. Still, it was better than “Oblivion”…