There is a part of me that should have stayed clear of After Earth given the number of negative reviews. The film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan and let’s be honest, he hasn’t made a hit film since The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. I ignored all of that and I sat down and took the plunge.
After Earth is not the worst sci-fi film I’ve seen (that honour belongs to Skyline and a few others). After Earth has interesting concepts but it struggles to execute them.
I think one of my first issues with the film that it doesn’t really give the audience much sense of the world that they live in. We are given very little knowledge why the human race left Earth and moved to Nova Prime. We are given the excuse of “toxics” and “we destroyed it” then followed by some kind of alien invasion from the Ursa – a miniature like Cloverfield monster that prey on the human race because they can smell our fear. Right off the bat – not a good start.
Then we get introduced to the two main characters – Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), names that sound like it belongs in a computer game and I will come back to that point later. Kitai is desperate to join the Ranger corp. but his commander feels he is not ready for advancement, much to Kitai’s disappointment as his father Cypher is coming back from active duty and wants to impress him. There is clearly coldness in their relationship and in an attempt to bond with his son, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission. That mission lands into trouble and they crash land on Earth whilst all of the crew die like a bunch red shirts – seriously they are wearing red spacesuits! The only way they can get back home is for an injured Cypher to guide his son through the monstrous terrain of “evolved” Earth and launch a beacon that would call for help.
“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity Kitai. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story and that day mine changed.” – Cypher
The concept sounds decent enough…so why am I feeling very indifferent to it?
Well my next issue with the film lies with the characters of Cypher and Kitai, played by real father and son Will Smith and Jaden Smith. A part of me enjoyed Will Smith’s persona in this film. Unlike his other films where he comes off as loud and cocky, it’s his calmness and his ability to take a step back in assessing the situation makes it an interesting performance and direction. However, Will Smith is naturally a charmer hence why I love him as an actor. It’s his strong personality that makes him who he is. So when I see scenes involving his painful memories of his dead daughter Senshi (Zoe Kravitz) who died in the hands of the Ursa and he acts the same way as he does throughout the whole film (with the same monotone, emotionless persona), it just doesn’t feel right. It feels like someone kidnapped his personality and we should hold a nationwide appeal to get it back by paying the kidnapper’s ransom. The same goes with his Jaden as Kitai. For a film aimed as a driving vehicle for his acting career he lacks the persona to really carry this film. Just like his dad’s performance, he comes off emotionless with the exception of one scene when he reacts angrily to his father’s assumption of his son being a coward.
The point I’m trying to make is when watching a film, you want to care about the characters and you want a reason to do so. But if the main characters feel distant and cold like Cypher and Kitai, it’s hard to really sympathise with them and their journey. This film is meant to symbolise a rite of passage and highlighting the will and strength of human survival and yet throughout the film, I never really engaged with it to actually care. I mean why are the Rangers so rigid in terms of their personality, in particular Cypher and Kitai? I’m not asking for a James Cameron marine style banter like in Avatar or Aliens for example, but the film mentions fear as an excuse and a sense of military duty. Really? That’s all it has? Going out on a date with a Ranger must be hard on Nova Prime! It doesn’t add up for me. As mentioned before, Cypher remembers a birthday conversation with his daughter and encourages him to blow out the candles via a video link even though he is nowhere near them – he’s on a mission, naturally. He acts the same way back then when she was alive and continues that throughout when he is guiding Kitai through Earth. It feels like there’s an emotional side issue in which the film doesn’t deal with. Did Cypher love his daughter? Of course he did, but at times it called for an emotional response to that memory and we didn’t get one. If Cypher/Will Smith brought out that charm in that scene (which we all know he has in abundance), his persona might help understand him better as a character. They talk about Earth’s evolvement, yet his character doesn’t do the same. At least there were small glimpses of Kitai’s evolvement, showing him as a happy kid but witnessing his sister’s death shaped him to be cold. He blamed himself hence the self drive to become a Ranger.
Overall it just feels robotic with Kitai’s responses reduced to “leave me alone” or Cypher’s “take a knee” dialogue. Whether it’s down to the script or the actors themselves, the nature of the father and son relationship didn’t feel real to care about.
Another issue is with the Rangers – they are there for protection. That’s fine. But what’s so special about them? What skills do they learn? Why should they “take a knee?” Again this is down to the script and not allowing the audience to gain an insight in what they do. Besides one running scene at the beginning of the movie, we never see what the reasons are for turning down Kitai for Ranger duty. We just see him running ahead of the pack and that’s it. Did he show arrogance in his training? Was he too eager? Again those insights would have been helpful. Because it wasn’t there, we have to imagine their responsibilities, their code of honour and the basic (and not really developed) concept of ghosts (soldiers who do not show fear) etc.
The third lies with planet Earth and their so-called evolving atmosphere. At night, the temperature drops to below freezing level. I’m not claiming to be a scientist or anything but if that is the case, why does a giant bird that helps Kitai and saves him from the cold, then die? It has been living on that planet for years. I know Kitai helped the creature fend off a bunch of wild lion like creatures but as Cypher suggests, if all animals have evolved to kill us, then this bird had a funny way of showing it and probably had no reason to save Kitai other than just a plot device to get the scene moving. Besides the animals, did Earth possess much of a threat? Couldn’t the settlement on Nova Prime gone back to re-colonise it?
For an alien race that invaded Nova Prime, we never really see them. We never sense their presence. Was this really an invasion? Again, the film lacks details.
I could go on.
Having said all that, After Earth is not the worse Shyamalan film – that belongs to The Happening. It’s become so easy to bash Shyamalan in the same way we continue to bash George Lucas for constantly re-editing the original Star Wars trilogy films (and the criticism of those re-edits are within good reason). The direction of this film is not bad. The problem lies with the under-developed script which did no favours to anyone. It leaves you with more questions than answers and you can’t blame the audience for feeling incredibly disappointed.
At least on the positive side, unlike Oblivion in which I address in my review with its constant plagiarism of better sci-fi films, After Earth does have a goal. It has a theme. This film is more of a character examination piece rather than a visually spectacular sci-fi vehicle. But because After Earth doesn’t even nail down the character development to even actually care or giving the theme that vital missing information to make this world feel real, After Earth feels more like a very basic concept for a video game, hence the names Cypher and Kitai (I’m probably doing video games a disservice with that comment as some video games are better than most movies!) The characters have a task and you, the one holding that PS3 controller, have to dodge and survive the terrain and fight an Ursa as your final boss man level before the game is over. In the end that is what the film felt like to me – a series of in-game objectives.
After Earth is an ok film providing that the logic meter in your brain has been switched off. Otherwise don’t rush yourself to watch it.