“After Earth” Movie Review

     For all the negative buzz surrounding actor Will Smith’s new film “After Earth”, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by what the final product turned out to be.  I normally ignore all things related to religion anyway, so the idea that Smith’s film is propaganda for Scientology matters little to me.  I did find it interesting that throughout the marketing campaign, which began back in December, there wasn’t a single mention of the fact M. Night Shyamalan is indeed the director as well as co-writer of the screenplay.  I suppose this shows how far (and how easy) Shyamalan has fallen after a string of costly misfires such as “The Happening”, “Lady in the Water”, and the wretched “The Last Airbender”.  Some might even say Shyamalan’s demise began back as far as “The Village”, though I would argue that film had some merit.  With “After Earth”, Shyamalan is working from a story written by Will Smith, which he and co-writer Gary Whitta adapted into a screenplay.  As a producer, it’s clear this is Will Smith’s project, with Shyamalan said to be more of a “hired gun” than anything.  The result isn’t potent, but is a serviceable entertainment containing several notable and creative design elements that enhance the overall story.

     In the same ball park as “Oblivion”, but not exactly a repeat of that scenario, it is explained that humans destroyed the Earth’s environment and were forced to evacuate the planet some thousand years ago.  The human race has settled on a planet called Nova Prime, but upon arrival there was something the scout party obviously missed.  An alien race already existed on Nova Prime and didn’t take too kindly to sharing their planet.  To combat and wipe out the humans, they breed creatures called Ursa, deadly and insect like, they kind of reminded me of the bugs in “Starship Troopers”.  The human fighting force, known as Rangers, are led by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who discovers he has a unique ability when fighting an Ursa.  It is said an Ursa is blind and instead tracks humans by way of the pheromones they release due to fear.  When one can be in the presence of an Ursa without fear, this means the Ursa can’t see you and the ability is known as “ghosting”.

     Cypher returns, after being away for years in battle, to his family which includes his wife, Faia (Sophie Okonedo) and 13 year old son, Kitai (Jaden Smith).  Will Smith plays Cypher stoic and stone faced.  It’s clear he has lost any and all of his social skills while away on his extended tour of duty and his return is marked by emotionless conversation, even though those who love him try and get close.  Faia sees Kitai needs his father and suggests the two of them go on a trip to another planet.  As the voyage begins, disaster strikes.  The ship finds itself in an asteroid field and is forced to crash land on the nearest planet, which happens to be Earth.  With the rest of the crew dead, Cypher and Kitai determine their only chance of survival is to retrieve an emergency beacon in the tail of the ship that crashed 100 kilometers from their location.  Cypher is badly injured and can’t move, thus it’s up to Kitai to make his way through treacherous terrain and recover the beacon.

     So where does this film falter?  With what I would consider an interesting premise, the film comes to a virtual standstill after the crash.  We are left with Will Smith cooped up in the space ship wreckage, guiding his son through the jungle via radio.  This means a lot of screen time for Jaden Smith and minimal screen time for Wil Smith, which I have to believe is not what your average filmgoer would expect.  Perhaps if Shyamalan could’ve conjured up some decent dialogue between the two characters, the audience might’ve felt more connected.  Instead we are constantly fed phrases which likely come from Cypher’s Ranger handbook such as “Danger is real. Fear is an option.”  This is what a father is telling his son as he faces numerous situations where he could’ve used counsel based on the father’s legendary experience doing basically the same tasks.  I’m sure Kitai would’ve appreciated some actual instruction along with some calming words to help him cope with the extraordinary predicaments he found himself in.  If this were true of our race a thousand years from now, than our regression socially is what would render us extinct, not some space monster.

     On the flip side, the design and technical aspects of “After Earth” are impeccable.  The futuristic technology from the ships to the gadgets and the survival suit Kitai wears are all well thought out and fit into the overall production design.  Too many times, it seems art directors fall back on designs for the future already seen in “Blade Runner” or “Star Wars”, rather than start from scratch and create a truly unique environment.  I am surprised with all of the technology on display that the humans primary weapon is a double bladed sword, rather than some sort of firearm.  It seems it would make it much easier to kill an Ursa from distance instead of fighting within harms way trying to stab it. 

     There’s no trace on Earth of any kind of previous civilization, at least nothing shown in the film.  Shyamalan stages the entire Earth sequence in a jungle, dense with vegetation.  Katai doesn’t run into anything you wouldn’t see today, though several of the animals he sees have clearly evolved over time, such as a slithering snake that has developed the ability to fly from one tree branch to another.  I admire the visual side of “After Earth” as many of the action sequences involving Kitai have a breathtaking quality due mostly to the surroundings.  If only someone would’ve come in and punched up the script a bit.  A sound and creative premise is clearly there, but the end product suffers greatly because the characters are given nothing meaningful to say.