After Earth

After EarthSynopsis: A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his legendary father Cypher (Will Smith) stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after cataclysmic events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a treacherous journey to signal for help. They must learn to work together and trust each other, if they want any chance of returning home.

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After Earth 7.25

eyelights: the basic concept. the evocative score.
eyesores: the CGI creatures.

“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist.”

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen on hard times. Once the toast of Hollywood, following the box office successes ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable‘ and ‘Signs’, he’s since had mixed results at the box office and has been just about torn apart by critics, derided publicly for his directorial and writing skills.

Similarly, Will Smith has not struck much gold in years. Once the biggest star in North America, he’s essentially eclipsed himself into obscurity since 2008, releasing few movies, and has had only one hit, the bloated big budget sequel ‘Men In Black 3’. For years he’s been content to be tabloid fodder.

So what does one get when you mix the two? Doubled fortune? Or double whammy?

In ‘After Earth’, one gets neither. One gets a pretty average Hollywood science-fiction adventure story about a space-faring father and son duo who are the only survivors of their ship’s complement after it crashes on a remote planet: Earth, 1000 years after it has been evacuated by the human race.

Naturally, the picture was trounced by critics and it only did moderate box office numbers in North America (hardly surprising: I still remember being the only one intrigued by the trailer). Its saving grace was on the international market, where it raked in 180 million dollars, likely helping it break even.

Many derided ‘After Earth’ as a Will Smith vanity project because he came up with the idea, turned it into a starring vehicle for himself and his son, Jaden, produced it, and ambitiously planned to make a trilogy of it, with a multi-medium platform in support of it. Some say it ranks with ‘Battlefield Earth‘.

Or reeks along with ‘Battlefield Earth’, if you must.

Of course, had it been a success, people would instead call Smith a visionary, much like they did with James Cameron following his monumental success with ‘Avatar‘ – another overblown and not especially original science fiction action-adventure film (you might have heard of it). Ambition only goes so far.

Instead, the picture was nominated for six much-coveted Razzie Awards – with Will and Jaden netting themselves three of them (for Worst Actor, Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Screen Combo). Although, in all fairness, that pales in comparison with Shyamalan’s previous picture, ‘The Last Airbender’, which had nine.

Unsurprisingly, plans for two sequels have been shelved indefinitely.

Personally, I didn’t think it was all that bad. It’s certainly nowhere as awful as ‘Battlefield Earth’. But I didn’t think it was all that great either. It’s the least memorable of all the Shyamalan films I’ve seen, even if it’s generally more enjoyable (or is that less grating?) than some of his most recent output.

The Good

I love the setting. I love that it takes place in a future that has seen humanity abandon Earth because it has ransacked it and couldn’t live there anymore – and that it has prospered elsewhere, in the countless stars. For me, what we are doing to our planet is not inconsequential, and I like that this drives the plot.

I like that, due to an accident, our duo is forced back on Earth, which has blossomed without our presence. However, it has been put under quarantine by the Interplanetary Authority, being unfit for human life now; the planet has fought back, a theme that Shyamalan also tried to address in ‘The Happening’.

I like the concept, the story of survival; I really enjoy those when they’re done well (ex: ‘127 Hours‘) because it displays ingenuity and willpower. I also like that the moral of the story is that fear is an invention of our mind that can only lead to our own destruction – that it should be mastered.

That is ever more true in an age when we give up our privacy and freedom for so-called “security”.

I liked that the enemy has no traditional senses, but can smell the pheromones that humans secrete when they’re afraid – and that’s how the creatures track them down. I like that Will Smith’s character knows no fear and thus is “invisible” to them, in a process that humans call “ghosting”. It’s a cool idea.

I also like that it was a father-son story with real-life father-son actors. I’m not as keen on on-screen couples who are true-life couples for some reason (perhaps it’s always too saccharine and self-absorbed), but the idea of the on-screen parent-child bond being reinforced by the actors’ real bond is cool.

The Not-so-good

Of course, you need top caliber actors for this to work. And this is rare. The Sheens got away with it in ‘Wall Street‘, and the Fondas were quite good in ‘On Golden Pond’. But these are exceptions. And the Smiths don’t really pull it off. They’re not terrible, but they can be a challenge to watch together.

And that’s a big problem for a picture that revolves around only these two characters. Since the little runt can’t deliver a line convincingly and the dad jettisons all the charisma that he has been known for (utterly failing to pull a Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus), then there is no reprieve from the double onslaught.

Of course, that also means that there is no comparison point to put things in perspective. In the ‘Star Wars’ prequels, there were a few good actors around to make the weaker ones stand out. That can be a career killer. Here there are no actors after the first 15 minutes of the picture; the Smiths are on their own.

If only ‘After Earth’ had had something extraordinary to offer aside for its setting and concept, but it doesn’t. The script holds no surprises whatsoever, the dialogues are anything but clever, the action is pedestrian and the special effects are actually stunningly bad in some areas – especially for big budgeter.

The worst of it comes in the CGI creatures that we encounter, whether it be the alien foe (unoriginally named “Ursa”) or the lifeforms on Earth (which have evolved from creatures we know now), they all look like cartoons. At least to me. They are totally unconvincing, thereby ruining the scenes they’re in.

One of the scenes with the most outstandingly poor CGI rendering is literally in the final scene, just before the credits, when their ship soars above the ocean, which is filled with whales. The water and whales didn’t mesh with the rest, and their movements were synchronized like an ’80s video game.

What a way to finish the picture! This is, after all, the last thing anyone will take from ‘After Earth’.

Ouch.

The editing is problematic as well. There are scenes that are cut together so poorly that they are discrepant, particularly when el runto goes to see the Ursa in the ship’s cargo area and he is coaxed by one of the soldiers to face his fear, to move closer to it; the different angles don’t match whatsoever.

There’s also this moment when Mr. Smith (who plays a hero of the war between humanity and Ursas) meets with a soldier that he once saved. In the first cuts, you can tell that the actors were CGI-ed into the picture, but in the last one, they’re clearly acting in the picture together. It’s discordant.

Having said this, I’ve seen more glaring issues in many other films.

The only really stunning part of the picture is James Newton Howard’s score. I’ve become a fan of his work with Shyalaman (whose films he’s score ever since ‘The Sixth Sense’) and here he doesn’t disappoint one bit, adding layers of depth and grace to ‘After Earth’ that would otherwise be totally absent.

I will no doubt buy that album, as I do with most of his other Shyalaman motion picture scores.

But that’s the only outstanding part of ‘After Earth’. I am intrigued by the world that was created here, but it’s a half-baked idea that should have been developed further for it to be more engaging. It would also have benefited from stronger performances, given that they are the core of the picture.

Having said this, ‘After Earth’ is reasonably entertaining and I don’t understand why it was so vilified. Perhaps it’s a question of ambition vs results? Perhaps it’s just easier to trash superstars, being bigger targets? Hmmm… I wonder what the picture’s fate would have been had it been an indie picture.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. ‘After Earth’ can be forgotten: there won’t be an ‘After After Earth’ after all.

Now we can all go back to trashing Michael Bay movies.

And rightfully so.

Date of viewing: January 30, 2015

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