The Good: Imaginative concept, Decent franchise potential, Effects
The Bad: Stiff/awkward acting, Somewhat monodirectional character development, Details
The Basics: Will Smith’s 2013 entry into Summer Blockbuster Season is After Earth which he tries to set up as a franchise for his actor son, Jaden.
Ever since Independence Day (reviewed here!), the quintessential staple actor for Summer Blockbuster Season and its formulaic attempts to rake in the dollars that people inexplicably spend on big budget summer movies is Will Smith. That’s fine; he’s a wonderful actor and while summer blockbusters seldom use him for his full range and ability, he is a proven entertainer who brings energy and emotion to (almost) every one of his roles, which draws audiences. For 2013, he co-wrote and developed the project After Earth, a platform utilizing both him and his actor son Jaden.
After Earth is hitting cinemas this weekend and the buzz behind it has been astonishingly bad. For one reason or another (maybe lack of advertising?) After Earth is not finding its expected audience and the news for the movie at the box office has been bad all weekend. It looks like it will debut at #3, behind Now You See Me and I mention that only because as the box office estimates have been revised downward all weekend, it actually made me want to see the film. Prior to the bad news for the movie, I had seen the movie poster, but otherwise knew nothing about the film (though I recalled seeing an After Earth book in the bookstore recently, so I was surprised to learn that the film is the basis for the emerging franchise, not the other way around). Part of this year’s apparent obsession with the Earth being laid to waste (a la Oblivion, reviewed here! and the forthcoming Elysium, reviewed here!), After Earth is a science fiction film with a decent concept that has a mixed, but not terrible, execution.
Opening with a crash and flashbacks to the environmental destruction of Earth, After Earth finds most humans living on Nova Prime where humans are hunted by the alien Ursas. Saved by the Rangers, humanity is in danger of being killed off. Kitai Raige is the son of the great Ranger Cypher and when he is not advanced from Cadet to Ranger, he feels shame. Cypher, who wants to be able to retire and spend time with his wife on Nova Prime, reluctantly takes his son with him on what is supposed to be his last mission. When the ship carrying them encounters an asteroid storm and is severely damaged, they are forced to crash land on Earth. Cypher is hurt in the crash and Kitai finds himself the only unharmed survivor of the crash.
Finding their distress beacon damaged and the spare in the ship’s missing tail section, Cypher tasks Kitai with making the 100 kilometer trek to the tail section to recover the other beacon. After an encounter with native primates and a parasite that poisons him, Kitai fully understands just how perilous his current predicament is. When his supplies appear insufficient to reach the tail section of the spacecraft and his communication’s link to his father is destroyed, all hope seems lost. But Kitai perseveres against wild animals and the hostile environment of the ruins of Earth to struggle toward his goal.
Well, if the very worst that can be said about After Earth is that it is better than John Carter (reviewed here!), I’d call that an accomplishment. While it is superior to that floppy, pulpy science fiction mess, After Earth has some serious problems, though most of them are not conceptual. The concept of After Earth is pretty solid. Earth is an overgrown nightmare in After Earth and having an estranged father and son as the two main characters in the movie is a reasonable and generally interesting conceit.
The problems with After Earth come with the execution of some of the ideas and the way parts of the movie are written. More than being at all bad, After Earth is erratic. For example, it is not made entirely clear – other than for the obvious thematic and character development – why the ship Kitai and Cypher are on is carrying one of the alien Ursas. Thematically, After Earth is about survival and a young man learning to overcome his fear. The Ursa, while physically blind, can track humans by the pheromones they secrete when afraid. Cypher learned how to not be afraid and become invisible to the enemy, which has given him a reputation and an uncommon number of military victories against the alien aggressors. So, as part of Kitai surviving on his own and learning to overcome fear, the obvious plot construct is to have an Ursa who will menace him and in his attempt to thwart the creature, he will manage his fear as a milestone of his personal development. It is not only obvious, it is entirely canned. There is so much on Earth that is scary and dangerous in After Earth, that the only reason to include an Ursa is that it is the cheapest, most obvious way to illustrate a Kitai having overcome his fear (as opposed to, for example, sufficient acting of fearlessness, which would do the same thing). So, in-universe, the Ursa’s presence is ridiculous, but from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense.
Similarly odd are other details that are not clearly presented. Kitai is told to head for the waterfall at one point and it is only when he is right on top of it that he acknowledges that he can hear it. How he knew where he was going until that point is unclear (and, given how Nova Prime is shown to be a rocky arid planet, how he would even know what a waterfall is is also unclear).
The truly inconsistent element is the acting. Will Smith is surprisingly melodramatic and stiff as Cypher and when he delivers orders to Kitai (Jaden Smith), he comes across as inhuman as opposed to militaristic and efficient. Smith pulls off the early action scenes that make the viewer believe he could be an exceptional warrior, but he fails to convince viewers that he has the charisma for his character to remain married or even be charming enough to bed a woman twice (Cypher and his wife had a daughter whose death Kitai feels responsible for). Unfortunately, while the ultimate resolution to After Earth could be seen as character growth, Smith’s monotonous performance through the movie makes it seem more like a cheap cop-out to make the film family-friendly.
As for Jaden Smith, he is good. He emotes well for the most part and he makes the viewer care about Kitai and whether or not he and his father will survive. Jaden Smith plays perfectly off all of the virtual creatures and makes the viewer believe that he is truly on an abandoned and savage Earth. While Jaden breaks when having his lips pecked at by a little bird, he seems very invested in the setting and animals he encounters. In fact, the only moment Jaden fails to land is a clunky moment when he and his father confront one another over their communicators about the past. There comes a point between Jaden’s Kitai standing up and forthrightly confronting his father about the past and his role in his sister’s death and shouting somewhat ridiculous pop psychology melodramatic aphorisms that the actor loses the audience. I actively recall being in the moment and consciously wondering if it was terrible acting or horrendous writing with the lines being delivered as best they could be, but the moment is a troublingly bad one for the film and the performer.
The special effects are good in After Earth and there is an obvious Honest Trailer joke about how the film features the eagles from The Lord Of The Rings. (If you have not yet found Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers on YouTube, check them out! They are hilarious and sometimes clever! While the eagles joke is an obvious one, it will be great to see – should they get around to an Honest Trailer of After Earth if they include Mount Doom in their mock cast list as the mountain upon which Kitai confronts the Ursa in After Earth bears a shocking resemblance to Mount Doom, though it might just be the angles director M. Night Shyamalan chose for them.).
Ultimately, After Earth might bomb in its first weekend at the box office, but there is remarkable potential for a franchise here (television or cinematic). Will Smith set his son up with a good concept and the property, if developed further, could be a reasonable vehicle for the young actor. And if Jaden Smith can succeed in progressing the franchise that After Earth might spawn, perhaps Will Smith could return to summer blockbusters that make better use of his talents.
For other works with David Denman, please check out my reviews of:
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© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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