I started thinking today about the similarities between being an M. Night Shyamalan fan and being trapped in an abusive relationship. If time opens up I may jot down the full extent of the metaphor, but you probably get the basic gist; No matter how much the man hurts us, we still think “Oh hey, remember Sixth Sense?” and continue to subject ourselves to the cinematic punishment he has been assaulting us with for nearly a decade. Well, after everything we’ve been through with the once great director, the first trailers for After Earth made me and countless others like me tell ourselves “Maybe he’s changed!” After all, after the man’s last four films have flopped both critically and financially, he had to have something great worked up for the studio in order for them to give him $130 million dollars to make the film. Having now seen the result of all of those dollars, the only silver lining I can find is that maybe, just maybe, people in Hollywood will finally stop letting the man make movies. After Earth squanders an exciting premise on one dimensional characters, abundant logical fallacies and absolutely terrible writing, proving once again that Shyamalan’s glory days are unlikely to ever return.
The Plot: 4/10
A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.
As I said above, the premise of After Earth held a lot of promise. The thought of escaping a post-apocalyptic Earth while being chased by all manner of newly evolved hunters of human kind could have made for a tense and exciting Sci-Fi thriller. To be fair, the exciting bits are all there and they produce some of the movie’s most involving scenes. Unfortunately, all of these exciting bits are bogged down by incredibly heavy handed exposition and an excessive amount of clumsy relationship building between Cypher and Kitai. Add in the fact that the ending can be seen from a mile away and it’s hard to call the story anything but mediocre.
The Writing: 2/10
As is usually the case, even if every other part of the movie is great, it’s hard to overcome bad writing. Now I know that writing has never been Shyamalan’s strong point, but in recent year’s things have gone from bad to mind-numbingly awful in that area. The dialogue in After Earth ranges from awkward to annoying, and the choices in characterization only make things worse. Some have positively compared the film’s screenplay to that of a video game, which makes sense until you remember that most video games are terribly written. About 90% of each character’s lines are goal oriented, consisting mostly of Cypher telling his son what to do.
The biggest problem with the writing, however, isn’t the dialogue; it’s the characters themselves. Kitai and Cypher are positioned as your typical obedience-oriented military father/son duo, but neither really has any sort of defining characteristic beyond that. The movie tries to flesh these characters out with the use of flashbacks to past events, but nothing in those flashbacks contains any shred of originality to make the characters feel any less one dimensional. I recognize that part of this has to do with the movie’s overall theme of overcoming fear, but why does “No Fear” have to mean “No Personality”? The flatness this gives the characters makes the already weak dialogue seem even more clunky.
The Acting: 3/10
Aside from the writing, the movie’s biggest offense is the absolute waste of the acting talent involved. Will Smith has grown from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to an accomplished, charismatic actor with a wide range of capabilities. So, what does M. Night Shyamalan do with an actor like that? He places him in a role with the emotional depth of a teaspoon and the facial expressiveness of Joan Rivers. The truly strange thing is, Twisty McGee can’t claim all of the blame for this as Smith himself acted as one of the film’s producers and had every opportunity to change the role. I’m guessing Smith was looking forward to expanding his range as an actor, but limiting himself in nearly every way probably wasn’t the best way to go.
I was slightly more impressed with Smith’s son, Jaden, though mostly because my expectations were considerably lower. Kitai is a weird combination of capable of highly trained and incredibly stupid (Oh hey, look at this strange, possibly dangerous, creature in front of me. Let’s throw a rock at it!) that would have been difficult to play even for a more seasoned actor, but there are moments when Young Smith makes it work. Those moments are the minority, however, and most of his role is still spent in angsty frustration with his father’s coldness.
The Sci-Fi: 5/10
When it comes down to it, After Earth is yet another Sci-Fi movie that looks pretty on the surface but has very little substance to back it all up. I’ll admit that most of my complaints here are fairly nit-picky and will not bother viewers who aren’t already invested in the Science Fiction genre, but I figured I’d list some of my complaints for the few of you who are interested.
1. Conveniently Handicapped Monster
Aside from Earth itself, the big baddie of the movie is a creature called an Ursa; a six-legged beast bred by aliens specifically to kill humans. Oh, did I mention that the only way it can sense humans is by smelling the pheromones released when a person is afraid, aka “smelling their fear”? Aside from the fact that this is an incredibly lazy plot device used to explore the fear theme, it also makes no sense. Why would an alien race go through all of the trouble to breed a human-killing creature and only allow it to sense those humans in one specific way? Why not let it smell skin, or better yet, why not give it some goddamn eyes? Nothing quite takes you out of the moment like the constant reminder that the main antagonist of the movie is nothing more than a tortured plot device.
2. Idiotic Weaponry
Oh hey there Kitai, that’s a nice double-edged sword you’ve got there. What’s that? It can change into different kinds of blades? Wow that’s cool. Wait a sec, you know what might be better? LITERALLY ANY PROJECTILE WEAPON YOU CAN THINK OF. You’re telling me that this space-faring, advanced society of humans who is at war against an enemy that can only fight in close quarters could only think of “Sword” when coming up with appropriate weapons of choice? I get that you want to look badass, but it’s hard not to constantly think to yourself “Wouldn’t all of this be easier if you had a phaser, or I don’t know, any number of the deadly weapons our current un-evolved society currently sells at Wal-Mart?”
3. Shyamalan Environmentalism
Listen, Hollywood, we get it. Humanity’s abuse of our environment will probably lead to its destruction at some point in our future, but after hearing about that in Wall-E, FernGully, The Day After Tomorrow, and countless more I seriously doubt that one more guilt trip is going to turn things around (Hint; this time it’s about whales). That being said, if you’re going to try to hammer that message home one more time, you’re probably better off with a director who doesn’t have The Happening on his resume. M. Night Shyamalan lost his rights to preach about the environment the day that hunk of compostable trash came out, and After Earth reminds us why that is.
The Verdict: 3.0/10 – Just Plain Bad
+ Occasionally pretty exciting, especially in the climactic Ursa vs. Kitai showdown
– Clumsy exposition throughout the story line
– Absolutely appalling writing which drags down the formidable acting talent involved
– Sci-Fi elements largely function as plot devices and nothing more
Rotten Tomatoes: 14 %
The Code is Zeek: 2/5
The Velvet Cafe: 1.5/5
Average: 3.9/10 – Not Worth It