Posted on 8/16/13 04:04 PM
"Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But Fear is a choice."
The above quote is probably the closest After Earth comes to profundity, intelligence, or anything resembling narrative sophistication. The line, while cliche, and more of a trailer (and evidently, poster) quote, does remind us that this film isn't quite as bad as the critics are making out. Luckily, intelligence, and gravitas were not what I expected to see, and perhaps that is why this review will refrain from savaging the film as so many critics have. "Love letter to Scientology" talk aside, the film is an adequate (if not fantastic) example of Brain-Off viewing. You do not go into this film with the expectation of seeing Avengers Assemble, but if you aren't looking for much, or you want to kill an hour or two (and the film is playing cheap), After Earth is mildly watchable fare.
Honestly, I think the primary reason for the enormous backlash greeted by the film is it's director (M. Night Shyamalan does not currently find himself in Hollywood's good graces), and critics having made up their minds prior to viewing. Truthfully, it isn't very good as a film (the lack of early screenings made that clear to most), but if you have low expectations, as I did, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised. As you may have heard by now, the film plays as somewhat of a Scientological (I don't care if that's not the word) allegory, or love letter, or whatever, but disregarding such trivial, unnecessary concerns, one must ask: Is the plot any good? The answer to that comes in two parts: The film is perfectly fine as light escapism, with a plot (of Will Smith's own devising), and isn't so offensively bad as to disavow Smith, but I can't, in good faith, recommend it to any (if you would see it for full price), as the poor writing, phoned-in (or non-existent) performances, and tonal inconsistency severely hamper the enjoyment I surprisingly got out of this film.
Plot: After Earth begins with a recap on what went down in the last thousand years: Following humanity's destruction of the Earth (a groan-worthy environmentalism message, thankfully ignored for the rest of the film), the world's governments formed a Ranger force, with the intention of herding us to a new home (the boringly named Nova Prime). Upon arrival, however, a far superior race of creature doesn't take kindly to our imposing on their own home, and takes to killing us off with Ursas, beasts that can track and kill humans, by following what is essentially the scent of our own fear. In retaliation, the rangers were trained to focus, and fear was eliminated, so as to ensure their successful combat of the Ursas. Of those trained to fight, the greatest of all was Cypher Raige (Smith, whose presence in this film leads me to believe that he is either receiving some karmic punishment for his comments on Django Unchained, or is on the slow path to what could be a career decline).Raige, backed up by the rangers, conquered Nova Prime, which is now humanity's home base.
Years following humanity's successful (seemingly unexplained) victory over the inhabitants, a society has been formed, and the next generation of Ranger is being trained. Among these is Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith, who I'm sorry to say has none of the charisma and charm of his father, and a screen presence that leaves something to be desired), who is (in theory)the finest Rangers in his class. However, the memory of a horrific Ursa attack that killed his sister prevents him from ever leaving his fear behind. At the insistence of his wife (who, rather surprisingly, was not played by Jada Pinkett-Smith), Cypher brings Kitai along for his final mission (groan), and (predictably) things don't go as planned.
As they pass through an asteroid field (thanks, Star Wars!), their ship gets Titanic'd, and an admittedly entertaining set piece follows (if only for the scene used heavily in the trailers, where the Elder Smith gets tossed around like a rag-doll). After a crash landing, Smith and Smith find themselves landed (gasp) on Earth!
You can guess the rest: Kitai must journey to find a flare, which will call a rescue crew, and get them off Earth. On the way, he will overcome adversity, face his fears, and mend the relationship with his father. It's all very heartwarming.
Positives: While I can't exactly list off a spate of "positives in this film, I can tell you the "not-awfuls" in the production. First of all, the elder Smith's acting ability has not diminished in the last few years, and although he is clearly phoning it in here, leaving it up to his son to carry the emotional, actorly portions of the script (of which, most are laughable). Despite this, Smith has an intangible watchability, something I would put down to his ever-present magnetism, making him a perfect anchor in what could have otherwise been a very, very forgettably film (as opposed to, y'know, just a very forgettable film).
Moving on, M Night, while far from the king of Hollywood he briefly appeared to be around the turn of the century, does a fine job in keeping the film at such a pace that we rarely feel too encumbered with it's dull script. Yes, his handling of what should be a generally light-hearted drama, with moments of angst, leaves a lot to be desired, and he doesn't do a great job at portraying the desperate situation the father and son team find themselves in, but he never lingers too long on the various scenes, which, I suppose, contributed to the film's forgettability, but it kept things interesting, nevertheless.
One more thing that stands out (at least while viewing the film), is the score. Somehow, this vanity project got James Newton-Howard on board, and it must be said: his score does wonders in keeping the interest high on this mostly forgettable trifle.
So, wrapping up the positives to After Earth is essentially viewing the glass as half full: It isn't great as a film, but it is passable entertainment.
Negatives: Unfortunately, while the film is briskly paced (and suffers the cons of that, as well as reaping the pros), and sufficiently well acted by Will Smith, just about everything else is, at the very least, off.
First and foremost: Jaden Smith: He cannot act. I'm not surprised, honestly. Everything about the young Smiths (Jaden and Willow) screams pushy parents. I see talk of his socialising with various celebrities like Selena Gomez, and it has to make you think: Why is Will Smith doing this? It's bad enough that Jaden Smith will probably never know what it is to actually grow up with a normal family life, but now his father is pushing him into a (failed) blockbuster? That's not right. Regardless of my personal opinions, it is a fact that Jaden possesses none of the charisma, screen presence, or simple talent that made his father a star in the first place. He attempts a bizarre accent that he can't maintain for the film's running time, and has awful delivery of simple lines. A touch of humour, whereby he comments on his space-suit-thing turning black, is delivered in such a hurry, with such little regard for the line's purpose, that I found myself wishing someone (anyone) else were in Smith's place.
Next most pressing matter, is the film's poor, poor script. It plays as an extremely predictable father-son fable. Before the opening credits began, I knew exactly what I was in for, and it was simply the style of the film, it's production values, that saved it from a more scathing review.
What really hurts After Earth, however, is it's tone. I mention the Younger Smith's inability to deliver dialogue very well, but that can also be attributed to the tone of the piece. At times, it wants to be a science-fiction action-adventure, and other times, it wants to be a familial drama (in space). Most of the time, however, it is a plodding excercise in how much a bad script (and a pretentious background can harm a film's chances of critical appreciation.
Overall, After Earth fails, primarily due to it's being part Will Smith Vanity Project, and part Jaden Smith Vehicle. With a story devised by Smith, and a script written by M Night, we never should have expected Whedon, or Tarantino-esque dialogue.
In closing: After Earth, when analysed on it's artistic merit (acting, writing, plotting, and general tone), is absolute dreck. It can't even apply to hold a candle to film's like Avengers Assemble, or even previous Smith films, like Men in Black 3 (which was fantastic, I might add). Analysed on it's technical merits (direction, effects, and score) however, and After Earth is perfectly watchable fare, just not something I would recommend paying money for.
If you can see this for free (or a severely reduced rate), have nothing better to do, and have a free hour or two, I would recommend you see After Earth. Actually, you should probably still avoid it, but despite it's being a painfully average (as my brother so aptly put it), and completely uninspired in all ways (aside from the score), After Earth is a perfectly adequate film to see, should you have the choice between it and something like, say, Battlefield Earth.
All in all, an easy film to watch, but far from anything you should seek out, and actively view.
Final Grade: C