Movie Review: After Earth- A Severe Wreckage of a Film Attributed to Poor Story Mechanics, Ambivalent Direction, and Rigid Performances

after-earth-jaden-smith-volcanoUtilizing a ship crash as an appropriate metaphor to describing a complete filmmaking disaster there will always be a need for assessing the devastation and confusion that comes post-crash where there are numerous explanations that need to be inquired including potential mechanical failure (story/dialogue/theme), pilot error (director/producer), or even foul play (actors). In the case of After Earth it seems easy enough to already blame the pilot or director M. Night Shyamalan since his career has plummeted to the depths of obscurity in the last decade with calamitous release after calamitous release including the pointlessly laughable The Happening and the self-righteously silly Lady in the Water. However, Shyamalan’s name was absent from the early marketing decisions for After Earth alluding that perhaps this wasn’t his creative machine to pilot and is perhaps the secondary crew member hired by this plane’s initial creator and star Will Smith. Now we’re approaching the actual explanation where shoddy workmanship on the plot mechanics combined with the hubris of a producer has created a weakened vessel that will inevitably crash due to poorly crafted parts, a disconnected and unengaged pilot for hire, and crew members unready for the daunting task requested of them. Basically the film After Earth is like witnessing the uncovered footage of a crash in the found black box showing all the poor decisions that led to this ship’s demise including the formulaic coming-of-age themes ingrained in the structure, the ambivalent direction of the pilot, the rigidness of the acting crew, and exceptionally bad designs especially in the effects. The film’s only admirable quality of seeing M. Night Shyamalan return to atmospheric minimalism—a talent previously showcased in his earlier works such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable—is inevitably lost in the increasingly sluggish and uneven story as well as the painful limitations in poor Jaden Smith’s performance. It might be unfair to bring about the comparison of John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth to Will Smith’s scientology influenced film After Earth since it doesn’t exactly reach that same level of awfulness, but the similarities are difficult to ignore. In the end After Earth can’t really be described as purely an M. Night Shyamalan film since it excludes his attributed creative twist staples and character dynamics but can actually be described as just another forgettable misguided science-fiction adventure that is as dense as space and as slow as time can be experienced in relativity.

Setting up the alternate futuristic universe that After Earth takes place in is a laborious task that is handled rather messily attempting to span 1,000 years through quick dull narration filled to the brim with environmental lecturing and a complete disregard for proper explanation. Having left earth due to the mutilation of the planet humans are now living on a luckily habitable planet called Nova Prime where they are struggling for survival against an alien race that has bred monsters called the Ursa who are blind but can smell the pheromones emitted by human fear. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) learned a tactic called “ghosting” where he was able to defeat the Ursa by appearing invisible to their pheromone senses and is considered the greatest hero amongst the living humans. This is the predictable setup of a son living in the large shadow of his greatly respected father where Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is attempting to reach out in the script’s unsubtle construction not only win over his father’s pride but also become a ranger in his own right. Kitai’s training is put to the ultimate test after the ship he and his father are on crash lands on the now quarantined Earth and needs to find the emergency beacon for home since his father is wounded and incapacitated. The story reveals its weakness early on with the characters being lazy alterations of familiar archetypes, or rather the overused child-parent sentimentalities that are in all Shyamalan pictures, making it difficult to empathize with anything that is occurring during the pivotal introduction phases of the film or beyond. Perhaps the muddled script with its dreary dialogue, predictable setups, and formulaic relationships can be attributed to the numerous writers involved including Shyamalan himself, Will Smith (originator of the idea), and Book of Eli screenwriter Gary Whitta. This partial coming-of-age story doesn’t have the necessary significance or connection to give the majority of the lazy science-fiction adventure the engaging thrust it feels desperate to acquire giving the audience an increasingly disappointing science-fiction film heavy on the mind numbing dialogue and light on the substance it needs. Because of this flimsy story construction including indolent characterization, unexplained backstories, and familiar thematic plot reveals the remainder of the film is left to fight against the murky turbulence weighing down a science-fiction vessel that can’t go anywhere but down.

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Though the film has a drastic emptiness in its story construction and a rather unexplored emotional dynamic between the father-son themes there are definitely some admirable qualities in the chosen style that M. Night Shyamalan delivers in the film. Considering his last few films have been significantly lacking in everything from compelling characters to thoughtful ideas his return to an atmospheric approach similar to his early foundational works such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable brings the highbrow science-fiction style to a less than highbrow science-fiction film. Some regular popcorn flick audience attendees might be irritated with the amount of dialogue that is exchanged between two very uninteresting protagonists, but it’s an intriguing creative choice that is reminiscent of strong conceptual science-fiction missing from most modern films. After Earth at the very least has a distinct visual look and a strong contemplative atmosphere without the intelligence to parallel it that works best in the confines of the darkly constructed interior ship and loses that uniqueness once it begins depending on the digitally constructed outer environment. Unfortunately this means that the initial admiration is only temporary as the film trudges along at its unbalanced pace either moving too slowly or too quickly depending on the action at hand, whether it’s Cypher administering self-recovery in the crashed ship or Kitai running from a pack of digital Orangutans. This brings us to one of the most crippling aspects of the production which is the abysmal special effects that never even seems to attempt appearing real since it emits a fakeness that is palpable throughout the entire film. The reason After Earth could probably be disregarded as a complete M. Night Shyamalan picture is the fact that the film has a sort of duality in existence, or one part cerebral science-fiction influenced from Shyamalan and the other part being a desperate star wheel house for Jaden Smith through the intentions of the film’s producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. After Earth came from the mind of Will Smith either through a scientology fantasy or from the desire to make the biggest leap in nepotism the industry has ever seen giving the lead to his son whose only experience before this was mildly impressing in the reboot of the Karate Kid.

More coming.

Grade: C

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