— Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night, 1967
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June 2, 2013
Review: After Earth
— Posted by Elliot Hopper
After Earth is a science fiction film directed by M. Night Shyamalan, co-written by himself and Gary Whitta and stars Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith. Will Smith originally conceived the story when he was watching the television show ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive’. That show, features accounts of individuals and groups caught in dangerous scenarios, presented through interviews and dramatic reenactments. The overall focus for ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive’ is how the survivors survived and the decisions they made that kept them alive.
Smith’s original concept was about a father and son crashing their car in the mountains or a remote region, with the son having to go out and get help to rescue his father (who assumedly becomes incapacitated due to the crash). Smith later decided to change the setting 1000 years into the future, which inflated the budget (approximately $130 million) but ultimately he was able to contact Gary Whitta, the writer of ‘The Book of Eli’ (2010) to help flesh out the story. He sold Whitta on this simple line “a father and son crash landed on Earth 1000 years after it had been abandoned by humankind.” From there it was up to Whitta to flesh out a story that somehow ended up with a running time of 100 minutes.
I’m going to get into spoilers here and really (REALLY) go into this movie. That’s the warning but if you want the long and short of it…
When this movie was first announced I was honestly intrigued, mainly because I do quite enjoy the science fiction genre. After the Last Airbender (2010), which I thought Shyamalan absolutely destroyed, I thought I’d never watch another M. Night film again. However, the inclusion of Gary Whitta as the writer turned my opinion around, as I did enjoy The Book of Eli. Plus it had the nuance of the ‘Will Smith summer blockbuster’, which dates back to Independence Day (1996). The guy has been relatively sure fire in terms of theatre entertainment, even if it borders a ‘so bad it’s good’ or the ‘just bad’ with Wild Wild West (1999). It’s an on-going joke if he says “oh hell naww” in a movie or not. But really the times have changed and even he took a break after Seven Pounds (2008) and his next film wasn’t until last year’s Men in Black sequel.
All that in mind however, what I did not expect was just how bad After Earth was. Call it my personal opinion or years of desensitization to countless repeat airings, but at this point Battlefield Earth (2000) is marginally more enjoyable, The Last Airbender (2010) was more enjoyable. I want to straight up say it’s not hyperbole. A bad film is just a bad film.
The marketing would have you believe the build up to the film is a twist as to “discover why we left Earth”. When in reality the truth is shown in file footage that humanity essentially exhausted Earth’s natural resources thus resulting in a mass exodus of all humans to a new planet, Nova Prime. Upon colonization of the planet, humans encountered an alien being called the S’krell. Who according to Wikipedia intended to conquer Nova Prime and the humans were in the way, or humans ran into them along the way. The point is I missed it in the brief summation of the film done by Kitai Raige (played by Jaden Smith) at the film’s introduction. The S’krell to combat the humans send alien creatures called Ursa to eradicate humanity. The design of the Ursa mirrors that of the Cloverfield (2008) or even Super 8 (2011). Undefined with multiple legs, pincers for aggressive attacks, more of a biological weapon with one glaring weakness – it’s blind. Thus it kills its prey by the smell or sense in such a way it detects other lifeforms due to their emotions and the body’s natural chemical reaction. Such as fear or anxiety, where the heartrate will increase, pores of your skin open, cold sweat, etc. It’s this that as Jaden Smith puts it early on that results in the Ursa “literally smelling our fear”. That is until Will Smith’s character Cypher Raige seemingly becomes fearless and displays what no other human before has done, and has no fear whatsoever. The ability to do this is called ‘ghosting’. And due to the one singular weakness that of blindness of the Ursa, Smith is able to just casually walk up to them and slice them dead at the neck. As Will Smith’s character puts it and the marketing for the film also says “Danger is real, fear is a choice.”
So with this as a setup, the added premise is that Will Smith has been on countless war campaigns to help train and subdue the constant Ursa threat. However in the meantime, Jaden Smith with long seeded emotional issues as divulged throughout the film after witnessing the death of his sister at an early age (Senshi Raige, played by Zoe Kravitz) first-hand has essentially traumatized him. It’s left him erratic and reckless in the field and as a result despite high scores in technical physicality of Ranger training. He is inadequate to become a full-fledged Ranger (like his father), despite his want to use that as a way to get his father’s attention. It’s the typical father/son trope as a way to create drama and the eventual causal formality of how it’s resolved throughout the film. It’s meant to ground it and with the casting of a literal father and son in the movie with the Smiths, you definitely see the necessary ‘real’ emotion delivered by both. As they convey a sense of familial situations of supposed genuine frustration, love or anger. Or ways to see how either Smith can call upon tears at a moment’s notice where a scene requires a strong sense of deliverable emotion. In all of Will Smith’s previous films, his normal box office draw is the level of charisma he exudes. In After Earth, don’t expect that, he’s not even stoic he’s almost robotic. Blame it on long campaigns of fighting the Ursa, but I guess throughout the film while fear is a choice, he has a hard time choosing to smile. But I get it as well; it needs to be implanted in the audience how ‘serious’ or how ‘grave’ the situation we see is. Plus he’s a General of an army that has basically lived war.
It’s here I can imagine M. Night coming in with his ‘way too close, yes we get it, this moment is deep’ shots saying to himself “Yes, this is the exact feeling we need. I need the audience to feel the emotion.” It’s atypical M. Night, I don’t need the camera angle to make me feel, the actors and the general setting or story will, no should do that. The fact of the matter is, it just all feels forced and typical. It’s not to discredit either Smith, but it’s evidentially clear that as the movie progresses, the younger Smith is not up to the task of headlining a film on his own. Yes, I watched The Karate Kid (2010) re-make and in fact did not mind it. But I felt while watching this movie, he wasn’t ready yet. And it has me concerned or just uninterested to the fact that if a Men in Black 4 happens, it’ll be another forceful manner to propel Jaden Smith further as the rumor mill suggests.
I think at the end of the day, Will Smith just wanted to make a movie with his son. And in truth it’s not a terrible thing, given his position. But it still doesn’t mean that this movie was good.
The situation is as proposed by Gary Whitta and M. Night that while on his last tour of duty, Will Smith decides to bring his son along to train the next batch of cadets off planet. As a way to “bond with him and become a better father” as ‘momma’ (Faia) Raige puts it (played by Sophie Okonedo). However, along the space trek on the stingray-designed ship, the ship encounters an asteroid storm and as a result is damaged along the flight. Before I get into that, it’s also very important to note that on-board the ship was an Ursa. You know those alien creatures that have violently killed so many humans at this point. The Rangers are using it to learn how to ghost and thus it being on-board is necessary for their final training.
Desperate to avoid getting completely destroyed by the storm, the ship warps further into space in order to escape. As a result it ventures way off course of its intended destination requiring a forced landing on a nearby planet. Which happens to be the quarantined Earth. The ship needs to land due to damage and as a result has no choice but land on Earth despite a warning beacon setup on the outskirts of the planet, which warns the crew of it being dangerous and uninhabitable for humans. Upon entering the atmosphere the tail section of the ship detaches and the front end where the Smiths are crash lands. The whole thing mimics the film Alive (1993) that also is a harrowing, albeit true story of survival. I take that back, in no way is After Earth ‘harrowing’ or maybe it is, but not in the way I mean it. Having crashed landed on Earth, Jaden Smith is okay and Will Smith is not. Will Smith has two broken legs, one severe that throughout the film tells us he could die at any minute. As a result as per Will Smith’s original concept, Jaden must now make a trek 100 km to the tail end of the ship to obtain a distress beacon to send it into space. Because the distress beacon in the front of the ship is destroyed. How, why these beacons are small easily destroyed devices, I don’t know. I think it has to do with the other obscurity of technological design the film displays as well (which I’ll get to later).
With the journey now imminent of young Jaden, you now get geared up for the potential “Oh what’s Earth like now?” excitement. Well it turns out it’s pretty simple. For 1000 years without human interference, the flora and fauna has evolved at an alarming degree, mostly for self-preservation. There is lots of buffalo, a giant condor (basically dinosaur size), tigers and really large baboons. Oh and some hogs. And naturally, while Will Smith says it’s the least likely scenario that the Ursa has survived the crash, it obviously in fact has.
Despite this, Jaden is equipped with a suit designed with smart fiber, which changes colors as a sensory detection to the surroundings. Ie, the suit is brown when things are “good to go”, white when the temperature drops, or black when a lifeform is encountered. It’s visual cues or adjustments to get the audience engaged, but really it does little other than highlight what is coming like a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Survival’ that Jaden Smith continually ignores throughout the movie. Coupled with the fact that his dad maintains an audible and visual connection with his son at all times. They’re constantly in contact throughout the movie (until Jaden naturally wrecks the communicator). Will Smith sees everything due to a camera attached on his suit and the numerous probes he also sends out throughout the planet to facilitate in the trek. I mean, it’s basically a Sherpa telling you what to do and what not to do, all you have to do is listen and pay attention. You can argue the conditions are highly stressful, but Jaden never really logically gives the moment a real sense of calmness and continues his erratic sense of behaviour. It’s literally continuous and makes it hard to root for him or stay at his side, but there we are, with the other Smith for an entire movie. There was a moment somehow M. Night faked me out and I completely forgot Will Smith was in the movie. Call it my own survival instincts kicking in of getting used to Jaden on-screen for extended periods.
I’d give you more details about the trek, but that is in fact, it. The build up for the film is so Jaden can too give the same robotic emotionless aka fearless face Will Smith gives throughout the film, so he can ghost and kill the Ursa. Which is hilariously watched on space YouTube by another human who is reviewing the video log files of the Boy Scout adventures that Jaden Smith had while on Earth. If you’ve read this far, fear not, the Smiths survive and that’s the end. Assumedly they go back home to Nova Prime for a happy ending. No twist, no anything hidden, everything about the movie is in plain sight despite marketing and the mysterious concept and title of ‘After Earth’.
There is a sincere amount of wrong with this film, which started, with the meshing of the two ideas of ‘survival’ plus ‘space’ allowing this movie to be under a specific genre. The original idea Smith had about it being in the wilderness might’ve been a lot stronger, strictly speaking if the goal was to create and portray an amazing emotional bound between the father and son, see Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). Which also starred the Smith duo. The whole issue of them being relatively estranged was also just never fully explored, outside of a scene where Will tells Jaden to abort the mission due to the low probability of success after Jaden wrecks two of his respirator inoculations. Did I forget to mention that? Earth’s atmosphere, the planet as a whole has evolved to kill humans. So even its breathable air is no longer really breathable. I would’ve appreciated a technical breakdown at this point, but even that was never given. Its this plus a multitude of other things, which are seemingly glossed over. But the reality of it, the movie absolutely drags in its 100 minute runtime. So the issues which I have brought up, especially that of the father/son dynamic and dealing with their personal counseling at an already incredibly slow pace – I don’t think I could’ve stomached it, you know, if the movie was even longer.
There was also a sincere obscurity of technological design featured throughout the movie. It’s definitely unique, whilst not familiar in a sterile manner like most of the science fiction genre. I had a hard time appreciating it, the overall spacial flooring of sections of the ship, housing units, etc. Why does the war veteran have a hovering wheelchair to aid him in mobility with his missing leg, are prosthetic limbs completely devoid in the future? I mean, that’s a floating wheelchair I just saw. Things were cartilage or bone inspired with lightweight material surface areas. Everything while felt ‘advanced technology’ just seemed so intangible. It’s like a salesman trying to tell me why this or that design is more ergonomically correct or through years and years of testing this end result is the appropriate design. I get that the technology and how it looks should be a differentiating factor, it just wasn’t attractive and had no real sense of weight or like I mentioned above tangibility. I get that Nike Free shoes are lightweight and designed with care, but I’ve been conditioned there and am not required to make assumptions. Call it bad editing maybe, as it was clear humanity had adopted an ‘eco-friendly’ approach given what they did to their last planet and a scene describing this was maybe omitted. Visually speaking everything just came across to me as more so different for no other reason but to be. It just added to the parts of where I felt the fact it was set in the future to be unnecessary.
The final thing I’d say is that I honestly would’ve preferred Will Smith’s legs not have been broken. But rather him end the movie in a quick 20-30 minutes like I know he could’ve instead of having to just sit through a prolonged agony of Jaden going through his first adventure. If the title has any allegory, it’s more a question of what’s ‘after’ this for M. Night Shyamalan, Gary Whitta, and Jaden Smith. I’m reluctant to say Will Smith, as he seemingly will bounce back from anything.