Sunday, July 7, 2013

Late to the Party Review: After Earth is Not a Good Film

Unless your sole source of movie information is a blog/podcast site about bad movies, you probably know by now that After Earth, the $130 million dollar budgeted Will Smith/M. Night Shyamalan project, is not a good film. Rotten Tomato "Top Critics" weighed in by saying things like:
"The story trajectory is so obvious that one of Shyamalan's cheesy surprises would have been welcome..."
"After Earth merits comparison with 2000's Battlefield Earth..."
"Impossible to take seriously."
After Earth Will Smith Jaden fear
The robots in the new I, Robot sequel
I finally took the time to see the film at a second run dollar theater (actually $2 in today's economy), and felt I got my money's worth only to see how many bad ideas could be put on display in a single film. The movie is a "boy survives in the woods" story off a 4th grade reading list, but with silly science fiction trappings that likely made it more expensive and limited its domestic audience.

Will Smith plays the ludicrously named "Cypher Raige" with a practiced coldness and half-hearted English accent, except for the one or two times when he gets mad and teases the audience with the Will Smith America knows and loves. His son Jaden plays "Kitai Raige," a cowardly 13 year old who can't get on the equivalent of the starfleet varsity team, despite his ability to run away at record speeds. People who have seen the trailer or other movies might think in the end the two might come to some sort of better understanding of each other, the son recognizing his father loves him, with the father shedding a prideful tear/showing human emotion of any kind. That sort of happens, as Jaden learns to "be a man," but there's really no indication that Will Smith's character was ever wrong.

Jaden Smith After Earth fear crying
Jaden's face through about 90% of the film.
Both actors have been criticized for their performances, but I'm not sure that it's a lack of talent so much as really poor choices by both the actors and the director. Smith is playing a sort of generic "military dad," but shows only a surface level coldness. His as-if statement seems to be that he really doesn't love his son, because there's virtually none of the internal struggle that movies with characters like this use to show that Chris Cooper's not such a bad guy, he just seems really mean.

Similarly, Jaden's choices seem to revolve around playing "scared" as though he's in near constant-terror. When he seemed to nearly have a panic attack in an early scene, I thought maybe there'd be some explanation of why he's like this, but I think the answer is just that he's a kid with some trauma. But "fear" is played up to the exclusion of basically everything else. Jaden never shows any signs of having "fun" (no one in the film does), but he spends most of the movie acting like a cowardly cartoon character, one step away from covering his face with his shuddering limbs. The result of these choices make the two characters that are the only people on screen for 95% of the movie extremely unlikable: nobody likes cold fish or fraidy cats. Maybe Jaden really is that bad an actor (and a few scenes where he tries to be mad or sad don't help his case), but I know Smith is capable of better, and that somebody chose to make him stoic and bland.

After Earth take a knee Jaden Smith
One of several knee-takings. 
We pointed out in our podcast review of The Last Airbender that Shyamalan has become an incredibly poor screenwriter, and more of that is on display here. The movie makes a tremendous exposition dump in the first 2-3 minutes, and the story structure is about as formulaic Joe Campbell theory as it gets. We also inexplicably learn that modern slang has survived for thousands of years, as Will Smith repeatedly tells Jaden to do things "a.s.a.p." or asks him to "take a knee" as though he were a pee-wee football coach. The one advantage to Jaden being alone in front of a green screen for 85% of the film is it cuts the amount of stilted dialogue the audience has to endure. The film is also almost completely humorless: I understand the central premise is not particularly funny, but the inability to find even occasional moments of levity in a movie where a main character is named "Cypher Raige" is inexcusable. Star Trek showed us the same monotone dystopia and could still find funny moments in nearly every incarnation, because the premise is inherently a bit silly.

The film's relationship with nature similarly makes poor choices left and right. Smith and Shyamalan clearly want 6th graders to identify "man vs. nature" as a conflict for their book reports on After Earth, and so Cypher Raige says things like "everything has evolved to kill humans," even though humans abandoned the planet for thousands of years. The ship was also carrying an "Ursa" a genetically engineered fear-smelling monster (not a bear) that can't sense people at all when they're not afraid of it, for "training" purposes. Predictably this leads to a third act showdown. Ursas are also a sort of nemesis for the Raige family after one killed Senshi Raige (Zoe Kravitz, another child of a "Different World" cast member).

The film takes great pains to introduce Moby Dick as a motif, offering ready-made comparisons with this Ursa. And of course, who could forget how Moby Dick ends- with Captain Ahab's son killing the whale even after the whale has been neutralized as a threat, getting his proper revenge!

Kitai's journey features several other encounters with animals, and even though he's the hero, he's a jerk in basically all of them. He's chased by giant baboons only after he hits one in the head with a thrown rock for no reason. Later, he is grabbed by a Condor and doesn't seem to notice as it mourns the loss of its babies. The condor then saves him from death by digging a hole and sticking him in it, even though it means the condor ends up freezing to death. Kitai manages a muted "thanks" to the bird that saved his dumb life, and then realizes the bird is frozen and just kind of wanders off. Finally, he kills a monster that has no idea where he is and is no longer a threat to him- I guess this is more acceptable than picking fights with monkeys or letting condors sacrifice their lives for you, but only barely.

At the end of the day, After Earth is a pretty bad movie that makes a lot of poor choices at almost every level, but the film suffers from pacing problems and director choices more than something legendarily bad like Battlefield Earth. Comparisons have been made to Scientology, but the biggest thing that jumped out to me was Cypher Raige's refusal to take any sort of pain medication because it might cause side effects, even though he had two broken legs. It's not the incomprehensible love-letter to L. Ron Hubbard that Battlefield was, so I didn't find any problem with it. Mostly this film is just a waste of an actor with great screen presence and further proof that Shyamalan has lost his ability to tell an engaging story.


  1. A haiku:
    The Last Airbender
    destroyed your faith in movies;
    After Earth just blew.

  2. Here's a Different World clip to celebrate Lisa Bonet and Jada Pinkett: (PS Pinkett's character was a total 5th season Poochie).