After Earth (2013)

After Earth PosterDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Release Date: May 31st, 2013 (US); June 7th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

M. Night Shyamalan has a grand idea. His mind urging him forth, he embarks upon creating a film shepherded by characters who are inherently devoid of emotion. It’s not that emotional attachment is hard to come by, rather, that these people strive valiantly to become absolutely emotionally detached. An inspired scheme. Someone give the Academy a call. Only, hold the phone for a moment. A bunch of characters whose individual and collective M.O. is to be uninterested and, subsequently, uninteresting? I digress, our gallant director must have a couple of top actors lined up who’ll be able to effectively balance this indifference with microscopic poignancy. Is that the Academy on hold- wait a minute. Will Smith, a quintessential purveyor of emotion — be it comedic or dramatic — and his extremely unseasoned son, are our emotionless duo? Who wrote this thing? Ah.

Unable to harness his impassioned outbursts, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is rejected by the cadets. He’s physically capable, but an inability to ‘ghost’ — hide one’s feelings in order to battle the Ursas, creatures that can smell fear — puts a dampener on Kitai’s attempts to impress his father Cypher (Will Smith). The pair share a disgruntled relationship that is a product of Cypher’s long stays away from home and Kitai’s self-condemning attitude in regard to his sister’s death. Midway through a family bonding trip, their spacecraft crashes on the now uninhabited Earth, leaving Cypher injured and Kitai as the duo’s only chance of survival.

An Ursas is loose and Kitai must repress emotion. Prepare for 100 minutes awkwardly depicting a person’s attempt to be boring. This premise is After Earth’s most debilitating problem, of which there are many. Renowned for his twists, we’re crying out for an M. Night Shyamalan tide-turner in the face of events that struggle to spark and ultimately dissolve into a sea of monotony. Devoid of any nuances designed to connect character and viewer, the film tries to infuse heaps of sentiment by way of inventing a dramatic predicament; the crash forces an incapacitated father to rely on his son who is mentally unequipped for the dangers ahead. But straight away this concept flails without emotional gravitas. There’s no tension as happenings are hampered by a lack of realism: surrounded by an almost universally dead crew, it’s inconceivable that Kitai would escape a plane crash without so much as a skin laceration. Heck, even dad Cypher’s broken leg sounds pretty welcoming considering he has just been zapped by whirling turbulence. (Always wear your seat belt kids.) After Earth is as diluted as science-fiction gets, plain-tasting and without scope. Look away now Stanley.

Neither Will nor Jaden is afforded much in the way of a relatable character, but the senior Smith should know better. Cypher does a lot of sensing — a trait that seems to come with the reticent territory from which he spawns — and it’s a shame that Will was unable to sense just how hopeless After Earth promised to be before putting pen to contract. In this sense the actors are more idiotic than their characters, but it’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. At one point, junior notices that a significant portion of his breathing equipment has been destroyed and opts not to tell senior. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s because he’s scared of his father’s reaction to wasted Jammie Dodgers. At least by lying Kitai is awake and therefore offering some sort of interaction with the audience rather than sleeping, a popular action of his that consumes at least half of the runtime and subsequently jars an already wobbly narrative flow. Though in fairness, if it wasn’t for an inordinate amount of caffeine, he mightn’t have been the only one dozing. Perhaps I should have indulged in some of Cypher’s painkillers – y’know, the tablets that he decides not to take for fear of drowsiness before succumbing to his unconscious anyway?

There’s an overbearing sense of woodenness going on too, and it’s not simply the vast array of trees that now cover an unpopulated Earth. Everything is very mechanical: the way people walk, the way people speak, and especially the way people act. Will and Jaden were authentic as a pair in The Pursuit of Happyness, their family connection purveyed with total wholeheartedness. In that outing we believed in them as father and son, not simply because that is reality, but because the two transferred their reality to the screen in a genuine manner. Here, it’s difficult to gain sight of this beneficial legitimacy as two poorly construed characters terminally intrude, along with a script that occasionally has us reconsidering The Phantom Menace for Best Original Screenplay (“I will guide you, it’ll be like I’m right there with you,” says assured father to timid son).

In seeking emotionless vigour, both Will and Jaden act as if they’ve just been told that McDonald’s is out of Big Macs whilst incurring the wrath of a food-demanding hangover; faces unwaveringly sorrowful, eyebrows lapsing and pupils heavy, emotionless but also purposeless. Next time nobody ought to invite Tony Montana over to any script-writing sessions, then we might see a film with dialogue that hasn’t been tanned by a machine gun. Cypher informs Kitai, “You are not a ranger,” before ordering his non-ranger son around a little more, probably in a similar vein to that which he instructs his rangers. These holes devour our lead actors and leave them stranded, unable to escape. It’s worth noting that there are one or two faint bids at humour, chuckle-inducing to a point, but gags that primarily urge us to contemplate the reasoning behind Shyamalan’s decision to present his piece with such a dreary and serious tone in the first place — a tone that, it turns out, doesn’t succeed in being all that serious anyway.

This recipe for disaster might boast a visual sheen that is moderately impressive — if not invariably cut-and-paste when it comes to Mordor-esque volcanoes — but it tanks in every other department. There are bad films, however there aren’t too many $130 million bad films. After Earth scores high in said category and, given its lofty price tag, that’s pretty unforgivable.

After Earth - Jaden

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures