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After Earth – film review

June 18, 2013

AFTER EARTH

Will Smith’s family affair becomes this year’s whipping boy.

Reviewed on Thursday 11th June 2013

after earth - nova prime spaceship

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Written by Gary Whitta & M. Night Shyamalan. Story by Will Smith. Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz. Running time: 100 mins.

One thousand years in the future, humanity has abandoned Earth and resettled on     a distant planet called Nova Prime where aliens known as the S’krell use large predatory creatures called Ursa to hunt down humans they feel have invaded their territory. When fifteen-year-old cadet Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his career officer father Cypher (Will Smith) crashland on Earth – what begins as an opportunity for a father/son bonding session – quickly becomes a rite of passage for young Kitai – as he is forced to learn to control his fear in the face of a terrifying alien adversary.

Every year, it seems, there is always one big summer movie which is targeted by critics for particular derision – whether the film deserves the intensity of vitriol or not. In these instances, it is the psychopathic glee with which film critics swarm and spit bile en mass at the chosen victim which is particularly disturbing. After all – it’s just a movie – right? Last summer it was John Carter. The year before that – Sucker Punch. And this year it is After Earth. Whether the frenzied hysteria over unsubstaniated and baseless claims this film somehow promotes the concepts of Scientology is the root cause of all the hate being hurled against it – or if indeed it is just another bashing victim of Critical Bandwagonism – I guess only time will tell. ‘Critical Bandwagonism’, by the way, is a term I’ve coined which refers to critics parroting each other’s opinions verbatim for fear of stepping away from the herd.

Make no mistake – I am by no means a Shyamalan apologist – or even an actual fan of his for that matter. But I don’t necessarily think he’s a terrible director either (not terrible as in the way Uwe Boll is terrible – or Michael Bay for that matter). Sure he’s made some pretty awful movies like The Village and The Happening (which I’m positive was meant to be a comedy, right?) and I felt The Sixth Sense was okay – if a little derivative of Jacob’s Ladder. But I did enjoy Unbreakable – which is the only film of his I actually own.

After Earth isn’t really that bad – it just isn’t very good. And Shyamalan’s direction isn’t the actual problem here – it’s more an issue with the central premise being poorly thought out to begin with. Although it seems to open with the intention of exploring the reconciliation between a career-obsessed father and a son who struggles to match his expectations – it’s a set-up which is never fully explored in any meaningful way. A situation not helped by the fact that father and son spend very little actual screen-time together. The physical separation of these two characters is perhaps the film’s most fundamental flaw – as it clearly robs the narrative of any opportunities to have them bond in a way we expect. And Will Smith’s character (which many have criticized as being humorless and stiff) is never given much of a chance to evolve or develop as a result of his experience. He is pretty much the same person at the beginning – as he is at the end. Perhaps, as this was planned     to be the first part in a proposed trilogy of films – the arc of his character was deliberately left open-ended so as to allow room for further development in subsequent adventures. Which in its own way illustrates the inherent pitfalls in leaving character arcs and story strands hanging unresolved in anticipation of success enough to warrant a follow-up which may never be guaranteed – (take     note Ridley Scott).

will smith jaden smith - after earth

Originally conceived by Will Smith as a contemporary-set vehicle for his son, Jaden – he relocated the story to the distant future, and as with many of the big summer science fiction films of recent times – scientific accuracy tends to take a back seat to the fiction – in order to serve the mechanics of plot. Recent examples include: virtually all of Prometheus and sizeable chunks of Star Trek Into Darkness. Unfortunately, After Earth continues this alarming trend of creative laziness.

Prior to the ship crashing on Earth, we are told that no human being has set foot on the planet in one thousand years – which, as an idea, is all well and good – as it creates a sense of mystery and anticipation. However, later – after the ship has crashed and prior to Kitai embarking on his eighty mile trek to the tail section to retrieve the emergency beacon, his father warns him to be vigilant as – “every creature on the planet has evolved to kill humans.” This is an effective line in creating suspense and foreboding, but in terms of evolution it makes no sense at all – if no human being has set foot on the planet, then why would the creatures need to evolve to kill humans? This anomaly could easily have been rectified with a simple and equally suspenseful line like “Be careful. The creatures of this world have evolved without us. We don’t know what dangers are out there.”

This wildly inaccurate scientific-contrivance-in-the-service-of-the-plot, however, pales next to the ‘snap-frozen jungle’ plot device we are subjected to later. In the absence of humanity we are told – the world’s climate has basically run amok (why?) – so that even in the tropics, the temperature at night drops below freezing. In a scene reminiscent of the ‘running from the wind’ sequence in The Happening (although not nearly as humorous) – Jaden is forced to flee a fast-moving CG shadow of frost which spreads across the jungle landscape as the sun dips below the horizon –     snap-feezing everything in its path. As ridiculous as anything in Roland Emmerich’s overblown propagandistic climate change fantasy The Day After Tomorrow, this sequence only exists to inject of modicum of urgency in Kitai’s otherwise mostly lethargic quest. This happens twice during his trek – the second time he is dragged to safety by a giant eagle which for some reason takes a liking to him (!) – and in one of the most jarring examples of anthropomorphization in recent memory – sacrifices its own life to save his. Although kind of touching, this scene with the eagle has no business being in this movie. In fact, it so rattled my suspension of disbelief – I     found I had enormous difficulty getting back into the movie from that point on.

jaden smith - after earth

Performance-wise, fourteen-year-old Jaden Smith must be commended for taking     his role seriously and for not merely aping his father’s on-screen persona. He clearly hopes to be considered a serious actor in his own right and will no doubt achieve this as he continues to gain more experience.

Featuring luminous 4K HD cinematography by David Cronenberg’s resident lenser Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back, Red Planet) – the film is visually gorgeous with stark Utah locations representing Nova Prime, contrasting with the     lush jungle greenery of Costa Rica – representing a verdant Earth. The distinctive production design by Thomas E. Sanders (Braveheart, Red Riding Hood, Apocalypto) does well in creating the look of a future human society not seen before – the result being it refreshingly defies comparison with previous films of this type. The visual effects on the other hand – particularly the CG animals – are less convincing.

I realize the issues I have with this film probably give the impression I had a bad     time with it – but this isn’t the case at all. While certainly no qualifier for my top ten favorite genre films of alltime – After Earth is by no means a candidate for my least favorite either.

2 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Piccadilly Cinemas, North Adelaide, June 11th 2013.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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13 Comments
  1. Great review. 🙂 I like that you didn’t totally bash it, which would probably be all too easy. I can’t see me ever watching this, though – Shyamalan’s films have just become far too bad lately. :-/

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! 🙂 Yeah, I went into this not expecting to write it up at all – considering all the bad press its been receiving and the fact that Shyamalan isn’t exactly one of my favorite filmmakers. So perhaps my low expectations helped a bit. It just annoys me when a particular movie (which may not actually be terrible) receives so much bile from critics just for the sake of it.

      • Yeah – I honestly don’t read ANY reviews from professional critics. Which may seem weird but… They’re snobs! Lol. I’ll stick with the opinions of fellow bloggers – I tend to agree with those more. 🙂

      • gregory moss permalink

        Haha – yeah, right with you on that table9. Fellow bloggers are way more reliable and consistent. 🙂

  2. Ugh. I hated this film. Tis my least favourite of the year so far. However I will state for the record, to defend myself against accusations of Critical Bandwagonism that I liked both John Carter and Sucker Punch. Actually the latter was in my top 5 films that year.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Nice to know there are others out there who appreciate Sucker Punch and John Carter. Both these films are classic cases of Critical Bandwagonism. Sucker Punch was always parroted as being nothing more than ‘a 12-year-old-schoolboy’s wet dream’ – and yet the 12- year-old-boys who were at the screening I attended were restless and bored when shit wasn’t blowing up – while the teenage girls in the audience were clearly invested and engaged with the plight of the characters – Snyder was bang on target I’d say. And John Carter was always parroted as being ‘derivative’ – even though it pre-dated all the films it was accused of copying! Perhaps Disney intentionally buried John Carter because they had Star Wars in the bag? It’s interesting that more and more people are coming out and saying they enjoyed these movies. I doubt it will happen with After Earth, but there you go. 🙂

      • You are spot on with that assertion that critics parroted about Sucker Punch. It is repeated in basically every negative review. And it is just so plainly incorrect. Makes me wonder if they actually thought about the film they were watching at all.

      • gregory moss permalink

        Thanks! Yeah, whenever I find myself having to defend my appreciation of Sucker Punch, and the other person attacks it for being ‘a 12-year-old-schoolboy’s wet dream’, I always relate that story to them and it usually stops them in their tracks. Perhaps by parroting that line – the critics were saying something about themselves – rather than the movie itself.

        🙂

  3. John Carter was my favourite movie last year. I thought it was damn-near perfect and exactly what the Star Wars prequels should have been like. The critical hammering it got was totally unfounded and the public were suckered by it. I would have loved to have seen a sequel.

    And After Earth does look bloody awful!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Although it wasn’t my favorite movie of last year, John Carter was definitely a highlight. And I agree – it’s exactly what the SW prequels should’ve been. I got so tired of critics parroting “Yes, but we’ve seen this all before.” – like it was some kind of problem with the movie itself. Perhaps if Disney had been less indifferent about educating the public on the legacy of the source novels eg: ‘Before Flash Gordon. Before Star Wars. Before Avatar – there was – John Carter Of Mars!’ – then maybe it could well have been the next great space opera series. I find it difficult to believe Disney would just simply botch JC’s marketing campaign due to incompetence.

      • Was it Hollywood politics? Someones career due for a fall? Payback time? Did the critics smell blood in the air? John Carter suffered such shocking word of mouth even before release, and the trailer/advance clips were pretty poor. When I saw the Blu-ray I thought I must have been watching a different movie altogether. The soundtrack album is one of the best scores in years. There is so much to praise that movie for. When you consider some of the glowing reviews some films get… Well certainly neither of the two Star Treks are in the same league as John Carter. Indeed none of this years crop of movies are equal to it, in my mind.

  4. gregory moss permalink

    I remember enjoying Giacchino’s score at the time I saw it in the cinema. I have yet to revisit John Carter on blu-ray, but it’s definitely on my ‘to watch and review’ list. Perhaps (like Blade Runner and Carpenter’s The Thing) – it will take time to be fully appreciated. But I’m sure it will be rediscovered and looked upon fondly in years to come. 🙂

    • Regards Shyamalan though- he really irritates me. Its as if he’s the Hollywood definition of a one-trick pony. His career has seemed to derive entirely from watching a Twilight Zone boxset. Just how does he get these things greenlit?

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