Directed By M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
Yeah, I’ll say it: “I’m an M. Night fan.”
I liked The Village, Unbreakable, Lady In The Water, Devil, and Signs. I like movies. I love mystery. Sue me if I differ from the masses that live to hate on anything that isn’t the “perfect” movie.
I like to harken back to a time when movies like Flight of The Navigator, The Boy Who Could Fly, and Cloak & Dagger were equally ridiculous, yet as kids, we loved them, grew up with them, and continue to cherish them as childhood gold.
With a film like After Earth, an equally zany plot is thrown at us, with horrendous acting and silly scenarios that have us either laughing or shaking our heads. While Shyamalan isn’t going to win any Oscar nods in the forseeable future for his particular brand of filmmaking, he still makes watchable Saturday-afternoon adventure romps that are completely enjoyable if one is willing to just relax and “go with it”. I mentioned those old 80’s movies for one reason: they are just as good or as bad as a movie like After Earth, yet somehow we give them a “pass” while crucifying something just as fun and mindless as After Earth.
After Earth is a futuristic/postapocalyptic yarn that assumes, once again, the Earth has become uninhabitable for the human race, and thus, we have spread out into space, colonizing a new planet called Nova Prime. Nova Prime, really? We’re now naming planets after Marvel comic books? What’s next, Planet Thor? Angela would just love that!
Anyhow, long after Nova Prime becomes our new home, an intensely hostile alien race known as the S’krell decide to start lighting us up like Christmas trees in an attempt to take over Nova Prime for themselves. To accomplish this, the S’krell employ a hoard of deadly, carnivorous creatures called Ursas to wreak havoc upon the humans; an act of “cleansing” in preparation for the S’krell’s takeover. The Ranger Corps., an elite branch of Nova Prime’s military, have learned to suppress their fear in order to combat the terrifying Ursas using a technique called “ghosting”. Ok, before you throw this gooey grilled cheese sandwich on the hot top, keep in mind that Shyamalan isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, he’s simply throwing out a plot element that will serve to set up the film’s main characters. Weak? Yeah, totally. Fun? Of course. “Ghosting” was originally developed by General Cypher Raige (no, really), played by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Raige then taught other Rangers the ghosting ability in preparation for the battle ahead, which they ultimately win. A big complaint of mine is how this “war” is pretty much glossed over in the first few moments of the film, a promising yet completely rushed back story that appears to only serve as a half-assed explanation for the aforementioned “ghosting”. It’s like getting strapped into a fully fueled fighter jet that’s about to take off and do Mach-3, only to be told to get right back out and take a walk down the flight line.
Raige’s son, Kitai, who has failed in his attempt to become a Ranger, is seen as a disappointment in his father’s eyes. Having lost his daughter to Ursa attacks, Raige lives as a mostly emotionless ex-warrior. As he prepares to retire from the Ranger Corps., one last mission is assigned to him: to transport a captured Ursa off-world for Ranger training. Caught in a freak asteroid shower, the ship is heavily damaged, goes through what appears to be a wormhole, and come out near the long-abandoned planet Earth. Continue to suspend belief and ignore the glaring plot holes that ask everything of the viewer, yet explain nothing. Where did this wormhole come from? Did we use it to get to Nova Prime in the first place??
Crash landing on Earth, the ship is broken in two, with the entire crew (minus father and son) perishing. In order to signal for help, Raige tries a damaged distress beacon which is, you guessed it, broken. There is another distress beacon, however it is conveniently stowed in the tail of the ship which is, you guessed it, really far away. With two badly broken legs, Raige isn’t going anywhere, forcing him to rely on the highly inexperienced Kitai to set off in the direction of the ship’s tail in search of said distress beacon.
What really stood out right away is the culturally evolved “dialect” that both Smith’s use. A very articulate cross between American and British English is at play, with slight traces of Scientology. OK, that was just plain rude. Either way, the elder Smith mostly nails it, coming across as a more grounded Morpheus-esque military commander, confident and sure. The same cannot be said about Jaden, who stumbles through the entire film with terrible lines and a weak grasp of the intended accent. A lot of criticism as been leveled at the younger Smith’s “acting” ability, and while most of it is indeed warranted, I will defend the kid a bit by saying that he had absolutely no business in this film in the first place. If nepotism played a hand, which I’m sure it did, didn’t Shyamalan or the casting director at least go so far as to perhaps coach Jaden a little bit better. Poor kid didn’t know what hit him, as he spends the entire film looking like a lost puppy with no clue of what to do next. No matter what you think of the new Smith, it’s almost a slam dunk guess that we have not seen the last of him. I’m not ready to close the door on Jaden completely, but he has none of his father’s (now former) charisma or carry, instead looking like the friend of a friend who had to fill in for the real actor that didn’t show up to filming.
After Earth looks pretty, with great attention paid to Earth’s flora and fauna, especially the deadly creatures that hunt Kitai at every turn. I especially liked the scene where the giant eagle is chasing a wing-suited Jaden down the side of an overly enormous mountain. That was the first scene of the film that put a smile on my face and made me realize that I was enjoying this movie just as much as any other popcorn throw-away. I kept thinking to myself, “If I was watching this at 10 or 12, I would have loved it and probably have had an After Earth poster on my wall.” I would probably have played with General Raige’s action figure and had epic battles between the Ursa and a battalion of G.I. Joes. Drop in a He-Man or two and ghost the hell out of Cobra, right?!
After Earth is overly ambitious, takes itself too serioulsy, and feels unevenly rushed in most places. The plot holes are many and Jaden Smith’s chops are nowhere near where they need to be if he expects a good ride through Hollywood, aside from his father’s obvious notoriety. This movie is a big, dumb reason to relax on the couch for an hour and a half and watch some cool action without having to engage your brain too much.
I had a good time watching After Earth. On the other hand, it’s also hard to recommend it to anyone who can’t let go of the notion that it’s a Shyamalan film. I get that, and a lot of the criticism towards his flavor of film making is indeed warranted. That said, I watch movies to relax and have a little down time. After Earth was a decent way to do both. Just be 10 again and the problem is solved!