by Adam Riske
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.
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.
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.
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.