Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: After Earth (Adam Riske's Take)

by Adam Riske
You should see After Earth and make your mind up for yourself. Don’t listen to the critics. It’s nowhere near as bad as they are saying.

After Earth is a flawed and dopey movie, but also an interesting, entertaining time-waster. I went into the movie expecting an absolute train wreck and After Earth is not that. In fact, it’s co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since Signs. Good for Shyamalan -- it’s a step back to respectability. As for the Smiths, After Earth is no worse than Men in Black 3 and another step in the right direction for Jaden.
The plot: The movie is set 1,000 years after humans left Earth due to a pesky apocalypse. Mankind took up shop on Nova Prime, which is like a mixture of the landscapes you sleep through on road trips and downtown Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Will Smith plays Cypher Raige, a legendary soldier/warrior known as a Ranger (there’s a Ranger team, you see) who’s the shit because he can “ghost,” which means that he has NO FEAR thus not releasing the scent that monsters known as Ursa use to detect humans to better kill them. Cypher’s son is Kitai (Jaden Smith), a brash young punk failing to live up to his father’s footsteps. Kitai is denied acceptance as a full-blown Ranger because, although athletic, he hasn’t mastered the whole "fear" thing yet. Father and son are not getting along (a past tragedy, you’ll see in flashbacks), so Mama Raige is all "You should take Kitai on your next mission, Cypher." Great idea, Mom! So, Kitai goes with Cypher on the mission (in tow are a bunch of other Rangers and a locked up Ursa, there for "ghost" training). Oh no, an asteroid field! The ship crash lands and Kitai and Cypher are stranded on Earth. Everyone dies except Kitai and Cypher. The Ursa is missing. Cypher is critically injured, so he tasks Kitai to go on a perilous journey through Earth to retrieve the beacon (many kilometers away in another part of the crashed ship) that can alert the help they need to bring them home. A lot of daddy issues are worked out as Cypher coaches Kitai along the way. Will Kitai master his fear? Is the Ursa still alive? Will they get back to Nova Prime?

There are essentially two performances in the movie: Jaden in the lead and Will as support. Will Smith is good here playing against type. I’ve heard that he turns down his mega-watt charm, but those people seem to be missing the point -- he’s playing a character who is kind of a dick. He doesn’t care about emotions; he’s a military task-master who is all about getting a job done. Jaden Smith gets a bad rap overall. While Will is usually trying to get audiences to always like him, that’s not Jaden Smith’s intention at all. As a performer, he’s brash just like Will, but also much angrier and emotional (but not in a fake way). I honestly think he could grow up to be an interesting actor. In After Earth, you get the brattiness and anger but also a vulnerability that makes his character sympathetic. He needs his Dad. Art imitating life? I don’t really give a shit. It works. The performance only goes a little off the rails when the script forces Kitai to show no fear and become an ultimate warrior, robbing Jaden of his most interesting trait: volatility. Plus he seems pretty athletic, like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible movies.
I liked that the movie isn't bombastic, especially for a summer science fiction movie. Even though it has a huge budget, After Earth feels small. It’s calm and more deliberately paced, which is a relief after Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6 (although I liked the latter two). As you watch After Earth, it feels like the Diet Coke version of Jurassic Park III. The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Empire Strikes Back) is really vivid and gorgeous. Even if After Earth were a bad movie, I would almost recommend seeing it on a big screen just to take in the look of it. I also liked the tech of the movie. The special effects are wonky overall (all of the animals and monsters look inorganic and weightless), but the CGI used for the trackers, mapping and diagnostics were all really neat-o! Isn’t that part of the reason we like sci-fi? For the neat-o?

But the movie has a fuck-ton of problems. The storytelling is really bad. Just read the plot paragraph I wrote and try not to smirk. It’s impossible to do. It’s very stupid: the names, the random Jamaican-American accents where no one says "it’s" when you can say "it is," the leaden narration which starts the movie and immediately goes away after the first few minutes. There are also big jumps from points A to B; Jaden is supposed to be fearful but is OK jumping off cliffs like he’s Jake Sully from Avatar (the movie is very derivative, ripping from Avatar to Planet of the Apes to Cloverfield) and he basically learns how to "ghost" by taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. Also, why did the animals on Earth "evolve to kill humans" when there are no humans left on Earth? And why does Cypher leave a message for his wife telling her he (at one point) lost communication with Kitai but never says "Hey by the way, can you track this message somehow and send help?" The theme of the movie is "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." I call bullshit. And if you never feel fear, how do you feel excitement or adrenaline or bravery? Yeesh.

I was worried at the outset because I was laughing out loud at the incompetence of the first 10 to 15 minutes of the movie. It gets better, but boy does After Earth start bad. There’s a shot to show off how good Will Smith is at "ghosting" where he kills an Ursa and it’s filmed in a money shot porno slo-mo. The accents are also impossible to not laugh at sometimes, like when Kitai asks to leave the dinner table and Cypher yells “DEEEEEENAAAAYYYYYEEEEDDDD!”

I still kind of like the movie. I don’t want to harp on movie critics, but they can be assholes. It’s fine if a critic legitimately doesn’t like After Earth, but it’s not so bad it deserves a 12% approval on Rotten Tomatoes (just like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is much better than the 14% it got). Critics sometimes go into hive mentality where they won’t recommend a movie that’s good at being what it’s about because he or she can’t possibly endorse a particular type of movie. This was an M. Night Shyamalan movie starring the Smiths, all of whom are ego-maniacs (as seen in many interviews). It was doomed from the outset. I am willing to give credit where it is due and I wish more critics would do the same.
After Earth is a prime example of "are you with a movie or are you not with a movie?" I recognize the movie has tons of flaws but it didn’t matter to me. I had a decent time and I’m glad I saw it. My expectations going in were very low and I got a perfectly watchable diversion. I’m going to call the movie a pleasant surprise and leave it at that.

Note: It’s kind of curious I didn’t mention the writing and directing of M. Night Shyamalan. Honestly, I almost forgot. The reason is because it’s so non-descript. Good for him. Be invisible (#ghosting) first and get your authorial voice back. It’s just competent genre direction -- no more, no less.

19 comments:

  1. Also, dick-all in the way of any sort of real evolution is going to take place in 1,000 years. I hate when science-fiction movies don't even try to be scientific.

    I don't know, man, I'm not sure I can turn around my decision to not bother watching this in the theatre just based on your review. I appreciate your positivity and I've at least enjoyed a fair number of movies that critics piled up on in the past, but everything I've seen about this, including the trailers, is telling me to run, not walk, away from this one. I'll let you know if I change my mind and depending on how it goes, may send you an invoice...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's all good. I'm not going to force After Earth on anyone because that's impossible and also I only kind of liked the movie. BUT you should totally see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. I'll way go to bat for that movie.

      Delete
  2. Sony should put your glowing review on the posters and TV ads: 'After Earth'... the Diet Coke version of Jurassic Park III.' - Adam Riske, F This Movie! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have to side with Sol on this one. It's not just the critics. Shyamalan's track record, the fact that I'm not a Jaden Smith fan, the fact that this doesn't seen like the typical fun, enthusiastic and energetic Will Smith that I know and love, the trailers, AND critical opinion all scream "don't waste your money on this movie!" for me. Sorry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Everyone hates After Earth! This is so funny. I feel like a person who made cookies and no one will eat them.

      Delete
    2. Well, did you have a history of burning your cookies and using ingredients that taste bad, anyway? And did you present them poorly? And are you charging for those cookies? No offense, but I would probably pass on those cookies, as well.

      Delete
    3. After Earth cookies would be animal crackers. That have evolved to kill humans.

      Delete
  4. I wish I could see this for $1 cause otherwise I am waiting to check it out when it is streaming for free.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good write up Adam, while I just can't be with you on going to see After Earth (Diet Coke version of Jurassic Park III does that make Olympus has Fallen the Crystal Pepsi version of Die Hard) I agree the previews don't make it look "The Happening" bad, but I will wait for the Netflix on this one, the CGI effects in the trailer look distractingly bad, almost as bad as World War Z (which I have very little hope in its from the director of Quantum of Solace, one of the worst shot bond movies ever)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Tom. Olympus Has Fallen is better than Crystal Pepsi but not by much. I'm convinced Pepsi made that drink to kill us.

      Delete
  6. Have you read the Vulture piece by Matt Patches? Interesting dissection from a former Scientologist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting article. The movie feels derivative of a lot of other science fiction movies from the past 20+ years so that's what stuck out to me more than anything. If there's a hidden agenda about Scientology it went right over my head when I watched it.

      Delete
  7. Adam, I took a gamble on your recommendation and saw "After Earth" yesterday during a matinee before work. And I agree with you now: it's not a horrible or bad movie, but also not a very good one either. It's easily M. Night's best work since "Signs" (assuming "Signs" is the Sears Tower and "After Earth" the Dearborn Station tower, with Shyamalan's other films in between Cabrini-Green housing dumps) and it has stuff to say and a few great moments here and there. Shame Jaden Smith and his irritating voice and mannerisms (which totally butcher the key scene when Kitai has to take a stand against his father) are front and center throughout the film. There's also close to no fun or exciting moments in this $125 million summer film, and a few gotta-be-shitting-me plot shortcuts (that giant bird!) for the film to arrive at a point that, frankly, neither the Kitai character or the story seem to have earned. Shyamalan has never been a laugh-a-minute deliverer of fun hijinks, but even "Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" had tense-defusing moments, which in "After Earth" sputter and die on the screen.

    On the other hand Will Smith, looking a lot like Laurence Fishburne and giving a restrained performance (good for the story/movie he's in, not good for his fans that want to see the W.S. we enjoy in summer popcorn flicks), verbalizes the difference between fear and danger better than I can recall on any other flick. "After Earth" also looks gorgeous (David Cronenberg's cinematographer Peter Suschitzky), presents a different-enough take on the future (quasi-organic technology side-by-side with modern conveniences) and is about an idea (relationships between parents and their grown children) that is given front and center treatment over the action and SFX shots. The movie screams "vanity project" and "ego trip" from everyone involved, but at its core the disappointment/approval/rejection of a father for his son for being or not being whom we expect him to be is a very powerful narrative tool that lifts the weak parts. I would really like to get JB's take on "After Earth" given he's the only regular 'F This Movie' contributor that has raised a grown child that's gone on to become his own man (and has admitted on the podcast being a sucker for father-son movies, which "After Earth" is to a tee).

    I'm neither glad or disappointed I saw "After Earth," but at least now Adam R. has someone to go seek the beacon now that he's been crippled by stinging comments from those that haven't seen the film like I did. ;-P

    ReplyDelete
  8. So I did it, Adam, went and watched this today AND...I agree with basically everything you said whole-heartedly. The first 10-15 minutes is BAD - I had forgotten that warning and man, was I ever starting to think I'd made a mistake. But it does get better and in the end it was not a bad way to spend 100 minutes at all. I didn't like it quite as much as I ended up liking John Carter but it's certainly the most undeservedly panned movie I've seen since that.

    I feel like critics just WANT to see M. Night fail and pick him apart like hyenas the moment they see a bit of weakness. The Smith Family is a new target but I think people want to see them fail now too (I kinda did after that interview - but not now). I hate that shit - seriously everyone, if you feel like going to the movies but there's nothing you're dying to see, give After Earth a shot - it really isn't that bad.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I am confused a bit. At some point at the early part of the movie, Will Smith got blown away from the ship, right.? But then he was still alive inside the ship when Jaden found him? Did I miss any scenes?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That part of the screenplay probably got sucked out of the ship too!

      Delete
  10. After Earth is ultimately too thin of a story to support all of its grandiose embellishments, but so what? It's better to try to pack every moment with beauty and feeling than to shrug and smirk. The film takes the characters and their feelings seriously, and lets its actors give strong, simple performances.

    ReplyDelete