For people who read this blog, M. Night Shyamalan is a director who needs no introduction. Originally revered for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he later met mixed reviews for The Village, and was then totally lambasted for Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. My feelings on Shyamalan are mixed; on the one hand, those last two movies deserve all the scorn they receive, on the other hand, I still think his first few movies, even including The Village, are pretty great. For many people, a new Shyamalan movie is going to be bad, whether they’ve seen it or not. I’m not trying to forgive him for The Happening or The Last Airbender, but I think his early track record indicates that he’s still capable of making decent movies. If anything, I think his directing is actually fairly solid, it’s his writing that’s really hit or miss. When it was announced that Shyamalan would be directing a sci-fi movie, I was cautiously optimism. If there’s one thing I felt fairly certain about, it’s that Shyamalan was under way too much scrutiny to try anything too risky with a new movie. For the most part, that assumption was correct.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith (concept)
Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter
Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo
Studios: Overbrook Entertainment, Blinding Edge Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 31, 2013
The original concept for After Earth was conceived by Will Smith, and was originally planned to take place in the present day in a remote mountainous region. At its core, After Earth is a wilderness survival movie, which makes sense given Smith’s original vision. After changing the setting to the future, Will Smith proposed the movie to writer Gary Whitta, who some people might remember for writing the sceenplay for Book of Eli. Whitta liked the concept, and fleshed it out to a full script. The two then approached Shyamalan to direct the movie, and he happily obliged. The final script was co-written by Shyamalan and Whitta, but I’m not sure to what degree Shyamalan altered the original script.
In 2025, humans leave the Earth due to environmental catastrophe. They then colonize a habitable planet outside the solar system called Nova Prime. At some point, humanity is attacked by an alien species. This species creates a bioengineered organism called the ursa, which can’t see, but can sense the pheromones that humans release when they’re scared. Humanity is set to be wiped out, that is until Cypher Raige (Will Smith) develops a technique that turns the tide of battle. This technique is dubbed “ghosting”, and involves a human eliminating their fear, thus becoming blind to the ursa. Cypher leads humanity’s military force, referred to as the ranger corps. His son, a teenager named Kitai, seeks to become a ranger. Cypher is always away, and barely knows his son Kitai. At his wife’s urging, he takes Kitai with him on a trip to a human settled planet. On route, they encounter a meteor shower, and are forced to land at a destination that the ship’s computer selected. This location ends up being Earth, which is deemed totally hostile to humans. The ship ends up crashing, leaving Kitai and Cypher as the only survivors. To make matters worse, an Ursa was being held in a cage onboard the ship, and has gone missing. Cypher is injured, so it’s up to Kitai to make a long trek to the other half of the crashed ship, which contains a device that can emit a distress beacon.
The story has a nice oldschool vibe to it. If you like Planet of the Apes’ theme of humans exploring a far future Earth, After Earth‘s premise will likely interest you. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings is that there are a number of plot elements that are too convenient, or just defy science. First of all, when the ship crashes, Kitai seems to be the only person buckled into a seat, even though there is plenty of warning. The rest of the crew is jettisoned, other than Cypher, who miraculously survives. The fact that only father and son survive, for no decent reason, seems incredibly improbable. Another strange element is that apparently there’s isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans to breathe without respiration aid, and yet there are numerous thriving mammals, many of which are larger in the size than today’s species. Additionally, the flora is more vibrant than ever, but everything freezes over at night. Also, life has somehow evolved to be harmful to humans, and yet humanity has been absent for 1000 years. Anyone with a basic understanding of evolution knows that a species won’t evolve mechanisms specifically to counter another species if the two aren’t in contact. Anyways, expect to suspend your disbelief when it comes to these plot devices. Shyamalan also has a way of being way to blatant with his foreshadowing. Not only does this not have his typical plot twists, you can see most events coming a mile off.
At risk of sounding too negative about After Earth, I’ll intersperese the negative with some positive. If you like sci-fi with planet exploration and survival, there’s a lot of fun to be had with After Earth. The environments are lush and interesting, evoking some of what people loved so much about Avatar. The vegetation and wildlife are really beautiful, and you get to see a range of locales. I love the concept of surviving alone in the wilderness, and to the movie’s credit, After Earth doesn’t skimp in this area; it pushes the survival theme to brutal lengths. Kitai deals with all manner of carnivorous wildlife, toxin inducing parasites, extreme weather conditions, and harsh topography. Central to the theme of the movie is Kitai’s journey to adulthood, and his desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. Instead of giving us the archetypal “tough kid”, Kitai is very fallible, and very much afraid of his harsh surroundings. On the flip side, he also doesn’t veer too far in the wimpy, overly incapable direction.
The human technology and clothing designs in After Earth are interesting, but far from mind-blowing. Movies like Oblivion and Star Trek: Into Darkness have way more flashy visuals, and better designed sci-fi human environments. After Earth at least tries to be different, going for a slight retrograde theme, but ultimately it’s at a lower standard. Retro design elements in AE include spaceship interiors that have straw-looking doors and almost wooden support beams, civilians that wear loose robes, a sail motif in the city, and rangers that wear a 60’s/70’s style of spandex jumpsuit. Heck, even the term “ranger” sounds like it’s from a 60’s sci-fi book (Star Rangers by Andre Norton, to be exact). To the designers’ credit, I actually really like the look of the jumpsuit. It has interesting round edged patterns, and it changes color based on the environment.
For most people, the make or break factor in After Earth will be the acting. In a risky move, Will and Jaden speak in made-up accents of the far future. Unfortunately, the accents ultimately come off sounding forced and awkward, and although they’re a noble effort, they’re likely to be really offputting for some people. Will Smith plays a hardline general with literally no emotion, which is really strange considering his typical roles. Some people might find his tone too stiff, but I personally felt there was a hidden depth to his performance. If anything it shows a range that I didn’t think he was capable of, and there’s plenty of subtle emotion hidden behind his rigid exterior. Conversely, my opinion of Jaden’s acting skills has lessened. I seem to remember really liking him in 2010’s The Karate Kid, but now I’m starting to doubt that memory. His performance in After Earth isn’t terrible, but he’s way too emotive. At any moment, he looks like he’s seconds away from breaking into tears. For some people, this facet of the movie might be enough to totally turn them off. In the pantheon of young actors, this is far from the bottle of the barrel; rather it hangs around the mid-ground. After Earth has several flashback sequences that serve to provide a bit more human drama to the film. They’re pretty unobtrusive, and do a nice job of adding depth to the relationship between Kitai and his father.
Overall, I had a pretty good time with After Earth. It has its flaws, but if you’re not too critical, and you like the theme of sci-fi exploration, I would still recommend giving this a chance. Shyamalan is one of those directors who has a mile long line of critics just waiting to say: “see, I told you so, this guy sucks”. Therefore, I don’t doubt that you will see plenty of reviews that are excessively harsh. Hating on Shyamalan is the hip thing to do, and After Earth is an obvious target. These reviews will not be written by sci-fi fans, which is why I hope I can still convince people who are interested in the premise to give it a shot. For sci-fi fans, this is at least worth a rental, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets something of a cult following. It’s not nearly as bad as the first flurry of reviews would have you believe.