Smear is the buzz killer. Preconceived notions about a director combined with a relatively uninspired premise made for low expectations for After Earth (2013) from M. Night Shyamalan. The young gentleman beside me was present only to bear free witness to calamity so that he might regale his fellows at the comic book store with accounts of contrivance and inconsistency. But I am an optimist so far as film and directorial redemption are concerned with a strong memory of The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002). The trailer for After Earth did bespeak a feral Earth over which a young Jaden Smith rides this Hollywood vehicle on the bumpy road to come of age and take up his father’s mantle while things jump out from behind other things to scare us and Smith. Will our hero (Shyamalan) slay the beast of predictability with his sword of intrigue and defend against the studio beast with his shield of Hollywood royalty? No, apparently not. This may have had something to do with the following credit: “Story by Will Smith.”
Humans were very naughty to the Earth and it became unlivable. So, we left, which was somehow related to Ranger-something and repopulated another planet with a cool-sounding name—Nova Prime, thanks IMDb—but there were aliens there or that came after we got there. These aliens created other aliens that were specially evolved to kill humans. Is evolved the right word for that? Anyway, these aliens, let’s call them aliens prime, can smell fear pheromones and are otherwise completely blind. Being completely blind is a pretty big disability for creatures the size of Indian elephants, but let’s put that to one side because there isn’t any alternative. Then comes this great man, savior, deliverer, protector called Cypher Raige (Will Smith). [NB: I don’t think they pronounced it “rage”, but there was a pretty thick Georgian accent rolling around for no apparent reason, so that might be how they pronounce “rage” in Atlanta.]
Cypher was able to shut off his fear completely, which they call “Ghosting”. I thought ghosting was when you sat on your hand for a full minute and then…maybe that’s something else…oh yeah, The Stranger. Yeah, so Cypher’s son is Kitai (Jaden Smith) and he wants to emulate his father’s greatness, but is reckless or something. By the way, there was a deep trauma involving these nasty aliens prime and also Cypher is away a lot because he’s the General and super good at stuff. But the general is going to retire after one more mission—ugh—and spend more time with his family. Cypher thinks it’d be a cool idea if Kitai goes along on the mission after Momma Raige (Sophie Okonedo) prods him about spending time with the boy. That’s the first five minutes of the movie.
As you know from the trailer, there’s a crash, Cypher is incapacitated and as the pair are the sole survivors, Kitai has to journey to get the thing that will get them out of there because the thing on their part of the plane got broke.
Things break pretty easily in the future, it would seem. This is one of about five times where the goalposts are moved to up the stakes or set the clock ticking. This is a rather painful write-by-numbers affair in that respect. Screenwriters Shyamalan and Gary Whitta have very little of interest to add to the genre of space action/adventure leaving all personality behind to further a plot that takes wooden acting as the necessary ingredient for success. As noted earlier, this is a story by Will Smith which is defined by the WGA as “distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.” That’s vague enough that they could have given Smith the credit while saving the movie from a litany of high-paced, hurdle-jumping exercises. They didn’t. Then they packed the opening narration with more exposition with far less skill than The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Then they gave the narration to a young boy whose voice is so pubescent that it’s guaranteed to annoy everyone. Insult adds to injury when they use the word “literally” which needs to go into the lexicological penalty box until people learn what it means (though, they do use it correctly, if unnecessarily) .
Yes, it’s a sci-fi action movie and the narrative is strictly mediocre. They might have saved the movie, even with their crummy story, with a little Shyamalan touch of ambiguity, narrative misdirection, or slow-turning screws to drive the tension. That didn’t happen. One thing that it has is a different view of future technology. If you’re a futurist, then this might be interesting. Their model appeared to be to turn most science fiction on its ear and show the humans with typical alien technology/artistic design whereby everything looks semi-organic, like they grew their ships and outfits. A lot of arbitrarily curving lines and things that don’t click together so much as hold on by magnet. The characters live in it without comment, but something about it never felt genuine to me. Perhaps it’s the digital English text over the excess of shape-shifty webbing. So that was a net neutral.
The look of Earth, which was the absolute last hope to raise this to something of interest, was just a half-familiar world where creatures were a little anthropomorphized, but basically the same as we have in our world—except the giant eagles. Literally, only the eagles are different. [NB: The alien prime is brought to Earth by the humans.] The cinematography from Peter Suschitzky was unremarkable. I don’t remember a single image from the movie that struck me with any force. And remember from the trailer, the kid jumps off a cliff of multiple waterfalls. But what can the man do? It isn’t like they were real waterfalls.
Here’s a thought I stole from someone leaving the theater. This is like a sequel to Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) where Earth’s plant-life exudes a pollen that drives humanity to murder-suicide. It’s an interesting thought and had Shyamalan spent more time and energy showing the transition from Earth to not-Earth, this might have held water. Ultimately, though, it has as much to do with Shyamalan as The Rainmaker (1997) had to do with Francis Ford Coppola. The difference was that Grisham knew how to write a story and Will Smith apparently knows how to write a high-ish concept.
This should have come out two months ago.