Film Review – After Earth
Strange how M. Night Shyamalan’s very name now comes with a certain connotation. Since Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) came out over a decade ago, his work has become less and less successful critically. It got to the point that when the trailer came out for Devil (2010)—a film he didn’t even direct—I distinctly remember scoffs and laughter coming from the audience at the sight of his name. No surprise, then, that the marketing material for his latest, After Earth, comes with his name nowhere to be seen. This is the production’s first—and maybe biggest—mistake. When a studio is wary of the public’s response to the person who directed their product, shouldn’t that signal to them that they may have hired the wrong person? But when it comes to big studios, you don’t need me telling you where common sense ranks in importance.
Far off in the distant future, humanity’s disregard for the environment has rendered Earth uninhabitable. As After Earth‘s story begins, we find them settled in other planetary systems. Because of the threat of dangerous alien beings known as “ursas,” humans developed highly trained ranger squads to take them down and keep the peace. The special skill of these rangers is their ability to remove all signs of fear from their psyche, known as “ghosting.” An ursa can literally sense the fear radiating off a person, and uses it as a sense of vision and direction. A ranger nullifies this by ghosting, and as a result an ursa cannot spot them. The very best ranger is General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a battle-tested soldier who can walk amongst the ursas completely undetected.
But this isn’t his story; it’s his son’s. Kitai (Jaden Smitih) looks up to his father, and wants to become a ranger as well. After a tragedy strikes their family, Kitai makes it his goal to become as good (or even better) than Cypher. Problem is, Kitai is struck with an overwhelming sense of fear. This is no good. While taking Kitai with him traveling, Cypher’s spaceship crashes on Earth, with the two as the only survivors. The only working distress beacon was located in the tail of ship, which broke off and is now a far distance from where they are. With Cypher handicapped by a bad leg injury, Kitai has to face his fear and make his way to the ship’s tail, with unknown wild animals (including a loose ursa) all evolved with the purpose of killing him.
I’m not sure where to begin with this movie. The screenplay was co-written by Shyamalan (with Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith), and much of it leaves head-scratching questions. The first is the names. “ghosting,” “Cypher Raige,” “Kitai,” “ursa”—who came up with these? Another problem is the issue of survival. Our main conflict is seeing if Kitai can make it safely to the ship’s tail and activate the beacon. He’s given everything needed for his mission: a suit that changes color when danger is near, a communication link that allows Cypher to speak with him and even see what he’s seeing, weaponry, medicine, etc. Everything appears to be in order for Kitai and Cypher, except for two important things: food and water. How exactly are they to survive without either? We aren’t told if they have food rations, Kitai never goes hunting, and Cypher just sits in a chair badly injured. This mission is supposed to last for days, and yet life-threatening dehydration is never a problem?
This is the strangest performance by Will Smith I’ve ever seen. He is a charismatic actor; much of his effectiveness comes from his very screen presence. But here, his delivery is completely flat. I’m not sure if that was his choice, the direction from Shyamalan, or a combination of the two. Does having a lack of fear also mean having a lack of interesting acting choices? Just because your character is written to be stern doesn’t mean you have to act like a robot. It also doesn’t help that both Will and Jaden spout an accent I dare not even try to pinpoint. Maybe it’s some special, evolved form of English, but it comes and goes so much I could never adjust to it.
If there is something to give After Earth credit for, it would be the bond Cypher and Kitai share through this experience, but that’s only because it features a real-life father and son duo. Everything else is badly rendered CGI, poor art design, no real distinguishing style, and a lack of actual suspense. I read that this was originally supposed to be centered on a simple camping trip gone badly. That would have been more interesting than this forgettable sci-fi approach. “Fear as a choice” is heavily emphasized, but even that doesn’t make sense. We don’t “choose” to become fearful; that’s just a natural emotion. It’s how we overcome the fear that matters, right? Goodness, where’s Yoda when you need some wisdom?
Final Grade: C-