Tuesday, October 29, 2013

After Earth

Will Smith can't help but exude charisma when he's on screen. He's been one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood since Independence Day, but lately has shied away from the spotlight it seems. About a year and a half ago when I started hearing rumors of a film called After Earth that would star Will Smith and his son Jaden, I have to admit that I was a little excited about it. I pictured something with the emotional impact of The Pursuit of Happyness but with the special effects and post-apocolyptic flare of I Am Legend. The only thing that seemed like a wild card was the choice of director - M. Night Shyamalan. When the trailers looked fairly promising, I was pretty certain I'd be seeing it in theatres. The one thing that held me back happened on the day of its release... when the reviews for After Earth dashed my hopes entirely (it currently holds an 11% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). After that, I had little desire to see this film and chalked its disappointing reception up to Shyamalan's steep descent into obscurity ever since he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Finally, when the opportunity came to see this movie for free (and when no other demands for my time were present) I resigned myself to sitting through this movie as I folded laundry.

General Cypher Raige is a legendary warrior who has mastered the art of "Ghosting" (masking his emotions from a terrifying species of blind alien creatures known as Ursas who can smell the pheromones produced by fear and thus track their prey). Leading the human race to a new settlement following an environmental catastrophe that makes Earth uninhabitable, he begins to train rangers with this skill so as to overcome their monstrous enemies should they ever return to Nova Prime. Cypher's son, Kitai, wishes to become a ranger and trains incessantly to emerge from his father's shadow. After failing to achieve the rank of Ranger yet again, Kitai is taken along on Cypher's final mission in space before retirement. However when unanticipated gravitron signals (yep, you read that right) announce an asteroid collision, the ship is thrown off course and crash lands on a nearby planet deemed "quarantined". As the father and son pair are the only survivors, and both of Cypher's legs have been broken during the crash, the inexperienced Kitai must brave the dangers of a post-human Earth in order to retrieve the homing beacon from the other half of the ship... all while avoiding the Ursa that escaped from imprisonment following the crash...

Even after seeing this movie, I can see where some people might have thought this was a good idea. Sure, the plot is needlessly complicated and the scenario is rather contrived, but the back story could actually be an interesting film in the right hands. Obviously, given my star rating above, this is not the film I was hoping for. What I am surprised to say, however, is that it wasn't entirely Shyamalan's fault as I had previously surmised (though he isn't entirely blameless). For starters, Will Smith plays an emotionless, up-tight military leader who won't crack a smile to save his life. In other words, he's not allowed to be Will Smith. Not only is he somehow transformed into a boring person to watch on screen, but his character is literally relegated to sitting in a cockpit giving orders over a headset. You don't hire Will Smith to "star" in your movie and not let him do what he's famous for.

That is the least of my complaints, however, as every other actor in this movie leaves no impression whatsoever. But even that would be bearable if the lead in this film weren't so utterly terrible. Jaden Smith did a credible job in the decent remake of Karate Kid, but he is far and way the worst thing about After Earth. His line readings are laughable, his facial expressions and body movements almost like a glichy android pretending to be human, and every time he tries to sell emotion it comes off as a whiny five year old crying for ice cream. I can't imagine how awkward this must have been for Shyamalan, who was clearly stuck with this blatant bit of nepotism (as Will Smith was a producer on the film). It almost seemed like his camera movements were trying to disguise Jaden's terrible acting, though it could have just been the cinematographer cringing at his pathetic performance.

The special effects are fairly well done, however, and with a serious re-writing of the screenplay and completely recasting the entire film, it could be an interesting sci-fi concept that might actually be enjoyable. It's frustrating sometimes when millions of dollars are invested in a story that an audience member feels they could have written better in an afternoon. After Earth is a wasted opportunity and something that I wouldn't recommend to anyone (except as an exercise in script doctoring). The only reason I'm giving this film two stars is for the intriguing concept and the decent visual effects. Don't bother with this one.

AFTER EARTH is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images