May 30, 2013
United States (English)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Written by M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith and Gary Whitta
"After Earth" sets its stakes and earns its stripes after crash-landing from an asteroid field of graceless introductions. I sincerely encourage former Shyamalan fans to give this surprising sci-fi parable a try.
After a lengthy confession and overview of M. Night Shyamalan's portfolio I'm ready to momentarily review his latest effort, "After Earth." Father-son duo Will and Jaden Smith star together (much like they did in "The Pursuit of Happyness") in this peculiar science-fiction adventure. Their ship has crash-landed on Earth some 1,000 years after humans left it. At one point we're told "it was a paradise, until we destroyed it." This future version of our planet actually appears paradisiacal, but it has become inhospitable to humans. The crux of "After Earth" is centered around Kitai (Jaden) who must reach the tail-end of their spacecraft in order to retrieve a beacon device imperative to their rescue. Once the movie reaches this point it becomes significantly more straight-forward and resonant, something I can hardly say for the film's entire first act.
When exposition isn't being uncomfortably force-fed into our veins we're struggling to stay afloat with the inexplicable names, accents and world-building. Speaking of such elucidations, why is this a problem in big-budget movies these days? Everything from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" to "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" feels the need to give us a crash course from the word "Go!" By comparison, the way we were inundated into "Oblivion," which I scoffed at then, is feeling more and more welcoming. "After Earth" suffers from a clunky introduction and it doesn't help that every side character comes off like a hokey denizen from the future. The Smiths, particularly Jaden, are the film's only saving graces in this department. Prior to his last few films Shyamalan always had a knack for getting genuine performances from younger actors, here's but one area wherein he seems to have gotten his groove back. It's not a big career (yet), but Jaden gives his best work. One scene that takes place on a waterfall may be his finest hour, it's a particularly emotional scene between the father and son characters.
The script is penned by Shyamalan with help from Will Smith and Gary Whitta. It's the first time in Night's directorial career that he wasn't also the sole writer. Whitta has become a new favorite for me, previously writing the bold and under-appreciated film "The Book of Eli" and also working on "Prey" and the award-winning "The Walking Dead" video game series. I can't say much for what Smith may have brought to the table (though several have claimed it has ties to Scientology) but Shyamalan and Whitta seem a perfect pairing for bringing faith-affirming subject matter to the foundation of a Hollywood film. It's not surprising to me that this would be unpopular.
General Cypher Raige (Will Smith's character) grapples between being a commander and/or a father. He's far from perfect at the latter and his struggle becomes a compelling one. Flashbacks of life before the crash reveal more on the homefront, most of these worked well when they weren't used to hide significant revelations but rather heartfelt family relations. I feel "After Earth" is a successful family movie for this reason, in addition to it's take-home lesson. Throughout Shyamalan's career he has been revolving around the human condition of fear and coming to terms with it: From a boy who could see the dead to a blind girl who must take a once-forbidden path. This time it's Kitai who must confront his mind's worst thoughts. Another pertinent and talky scene has Cypher sharing the moment he learned to shed himself from fear, "We're all telling ourselves a story and that day mine changed."
For the most part "After Earth" looks the part of a Hollywood sci-fi spectacle. I've heard from multiple sources that the 4K presentation is worth writing home about. It's Earth that looks best and not necessarily its evolved indigenous life. CGI, as with so many filmmakers, has actually proven to be a bane for M. Night Shyamalan. "Signs" only hurt when it was utilized in abundance. Other cinematic framings and unique camerawork are scattered throughout. When Kitai first comes to after the crash there's an automatic door on the aircraft that continually tries to close but cannot for the corpse in its way. We're positioned on the outside so as to have it occasionally disrupt our view. It's touches of perspective like these that always made scenes that much more memorable in Shyamalan's projects.
The general consensus thus far for "After Earth" has been noticeably negative. Some have gone so far as to label him a "director for hire." After a string of diminishing returns many feel Shyamalan has indeed buried himself. For me "After Earth" feels more like a rejuvenation of style and sensibilities. It's not one of his best and has some sore spots to brush past, but the central drama between Cypher and Kitai, and nearly everything that takes place on Earth, is intact for those willing to let a once master storyteller spin another yarn.
"Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Now do not misunderstand me, danger is very real. But fear is a choice."
- General Cypher Raige
CONTENT: action, some bloody violence, frightening moments and disturbing images