After Earth (2013) – Directed by M. Night Shyamalan – Starring Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, and Zoë Kravitz.
I do not hate AFTER EARTH so much as I am forced to acknowledge its existence.
It is a curious movie and it is not a good movie and, at times, it is an embarrassing movie. It is a Will Smith movie that is not a Will Smith movie, and that makes it worth watching and hard watching.
But it’s still a movie. There are films that wind me up and infuriate me with their stupidity or ineptitude, films that offend me to the point where I can’t wait to sit at the keyboard of my MacBook Air and excoriate the people responsible. AFTER EARTH never reached that level. To be sure, it’s a terrible movie. It’s an utterly disastrous movie, in many regards, but it’s not the worst movie ever made.
Though, yes, it’s much closer to the being the Worst Movie Evah than it is the Best Movie of All-Time. Or even the Most Average Movie Ever.
The film itself is barely worth talking about – Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is the greatest Ranger ever and his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is struggling to both live under that shadow and deal with the death of his sister. There are beasts called Ursa that are big but blind, and hunt by smelling the pheromones released by humans when they experience fear. So, yes, the Ursa smell your fear and thus, you know exactly where this story is going.
The elder Smith’s performance of Cypher isn’t something I want to criticize too harshly because it’s nice to see Smith delivering a new kind of performance, and more importantly, what’s wrong with the movie has little to do with either this character or this actor. Cypher was the first Ranger who was ever able to “ghost,” to be able to control his fear to the point that he released no pheromones, making the Ursa unable to sense him. I appreciate how Smith extends this ability out to Cypher’s life away from the field of battle. He extends it so far that it becomes a crutch for Cypher – he’s the best Ranger but not a great father as he struggles to treat Kitai as a son instead of as a soldier.
These father/son moments are rather painful to watch because they are so clumsily written, and the stilted emotional state of the father and explosive emotional persona of the son clash in unpleasant ways. Kitai is disappointed because he did not advance in Ranger training but his reaction is to stomp his foot and not want to eat dinner. Cypher’s reaction is to order his son around as he would a recruit. Throughout the film, he’s much more comfortable as a solider instead of as a father, but he agrees to take his son on an interstellar trip in hopes of bonding.
The trip goes awry as their ship gets hit by a freak asteroid shower, escapes through a wormhole, and crashes to Earth, which is now a quarantined planet. Everybody dies but Cypher and Kit, and they need to get to the tail end of the crashed ship to get the beacon that can save their life. (It does seem like a bit of a design flaw that there’s only one beacon on board.) Cypher’s legs are broken, which means Kitai has to make the long journey across the dangerous landscape.
I think Smith does a good job as the physically-injured and emotionally-stunted Cypher. You can see the struggle between soldier and father as he watches his son struggle to complete a military mission.
One could also say it’s a struggle between father and producer as he watches his son struggle to act at a level a film needs to draw an audience in.
Jaden Smith does not turn in a good performance in AFTER EARTH, but the part of Kitai is so daft that it would have taken an extraordinary effort to make it work. Kitai’s journey across this futuristic Earth is complete with battles against big animals, but unlike the similar fights in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, AFTER EARTH is tedious instead of fun. The sequences seem designed almost as a class exercise where everyone has to come up with a fight scene against a giant creature and then watch them assembled together for the final.
The fights have lots of posturing but not much excitement.
In terms of Kitai’s character, the only part of the movie that really worked for me was seeing his rise to the defense of some giant bird chicks. The mother bird captured Kitai and stuck him in her nest. He wakes up to witness the mother’s eggs hatching, just as some tigers show up to eat them. Kitai rises to their defense, and I give the film credit for most of Kitai’s success in these fights being chalked up to luck. In the end, he saves none of the chicks and as he escapes, he sees the crestfallen mother trying to coax life back into one dead offspring. The bird follows Kitai in their air and we get another scream and stomp moment as Kitai demands to be left alone.
Shortly thereafter, severe cold forces Kitai to the ground and death seems imminent, but something pulls Kitai away and he wakes up to find that the large bird has saved him at the expense of her own life. It’s a good scene, reinforcing the bond between parent and child, but M. Night Shyamalan botches the execution, failing to give it the impact it should have had.
I don’t know what to make of Shyamalan these days. I’ve never liked the stories he told – I was nearly apoplectic while watching The Sixth Sense in the theater at how stupid it was and it’s one of the few times I’ve been convinced that I saw a different cut of the movie because I cannot understand how anyone could think it’s a good movie. It’s so bad and so insulting to the audience that it still drives me crazy.
But at least Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (another movie I did not like, and the film that convinced me Shyamalan wasn’t a talent whose work I needed to follow) demonstrated some skill. Shyamalan’s directing was solid, his stories moved, and I liked what he did with his camera. That’s all gone. Whether he’s been beat down by the diminishing appreciation for his work or has just run out of ideas and lost his passion (the same could be said for the Farrelly Brothers, who came to prominence just a bit before Shyamalan), AFTER EARTH is really bad filmmaking. The script is nonsense, the action is silly, and the execution is lazy.
AFTER EARTH takes the curious move of taking its most charismatic star and removing all of his charisma. As an acting choice, I applaud Will Smith for taking this challenge on, but AFTER EARTH isn’t Dallas Buyer’s Club or Her, it’s a freaking popcorn movie. If you’re going to spend over $100 million to make a Will Smith movie, it’s probably a good idea to deliver a Will Smith movie. Or have someone in the film who can replace that charisma (they totally should have made this movie as Bad Boys 3 with Martin Lawrence in the Jaden Smith role). Maybe this was designed for father to pass the torch to his son; it so, it’s a noble thought but not a noble result.
After Kitai has saved the day and reunited with his father, he tells Cypher that, “I want to work with mom.” Kitai is not ready to be Cypher, and Jaden Smith is not ready to carry a movie.