16 June 2013

Review: After Earth

(Dir: M. Night Shyamalan, 2013)  

I'm going to begin this review with a related two part question. i) What the hell is Will Smith doing with his career? Returning to acting after a four year break with last year's Men In Black III was probably wise, if completely uninspired, and following that up with the title role in Django Unchained would've been just what he needed, but instead he left that project for the not exactly inspired After Earth. ii) What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan? After appearing out of nowhere to wide acclaim with both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but falling to unfair criticism for some intriguing films (I'm thinking The Village and Lady In the Water), Shyamalan seems to have gotten lost down an increasingly mundane rabbit hole somewhere, whilst running further from his strengths by adapting The Last Airbender and making After Earth. Sadly it seems he actually listened to the critics and lost faith in himself.

Like the recent Oblivion (review here), After Earth is another original big budget science fiction movie, something we continue to need but which worryingly seems a perilous business decision when confronted with such poor box office. Set a thousand years in the future, Earth is but a distant memory for mankind thanks to our predilection for destruction. Inhabiting a new planet / solar system means a different type of life and threats, the greatest being Ursa's, a creature who relies on the fear of its prey in order to hunt and kill. Will Smith plays Cypher Raige (yes, seriously) a revered General capable of never showing fear, who with his keen to impress son Kitai (Jaden Smith), crash land on a quarantined Earth with an Ursa and must fight to survive on this now alien landscape. 

After Earth is actually a far simpler film than that description makes it sound. After a short set up we're quickly intruding on a lush green Earth, and bar a few flashbacks it evolves into the Smith's show. Jaden becomes the lead trekking through the wild with a destination that must be reached, as Will is confined to the ship's wreckage, but as this is the future communicating with each is of course not an issue. The futuristic set-up that's been established seems almost perfunctory, it only really adds intrigue to some of the Earth bound scenes via the 3D digital displays in the ship, or Kitai's smart suit and the cutlass he gets to use. As you'd imagine some of the nature based cinematography is fantastic, but likewise there are other scenes, such as the senior Smith trying to calm his son as the ship comes down to Earth, that also work well. But then After Earth overdoes it on the CGI animal front, with some just not looking convincing and seriously detracting on the threat we should feel. 
Jaden is only fairly capable in the lead, lacking the personality that let him carry The Karate Kid. For a large portion of the film he veers closer to irritating, and it's only as we're into the second half that being in his presence ceases to be such a chore. The (clichéd) emotional weight he's carrying certainly doesn't help. If this is supposed to be the film to convince that he should be a leading actor, it's not successful. Yet amazingly Will fares a lot worse, hence my concern at the outset of this review. His role as the emotionless, stoic general is entirely one-note, as he treats his son like someone in his command. It's frustrating to watch as we know this character should be so much better as it's Will Smith on the screen, but there's just nothing there. The slivers of emotion that they try to interject get lost. The only notion of a familial connection between the two is physically, and as the story relies on the whole father / son aspect to work, this is something of a major failing. 

As films about trekking through the wilderness go, After Earth is vaguely interesting mostly because of the futuristic spin, but it never gets particularly exciting or does anything original. As it progresses it does become more enjoyable, which mostly seems due to the lack of significance Smith Sr plays in proceedings. But all in all it's an average film that falls apart from the emotional angle. In terms of Shyamalan's involvement, that's indiscernable - much like The Last Airbender this could've been directed by anyone as there's no personality or essence of passion to it. I really hope he goes back to writing and directing something akin to his earlier work as we need more creative minds like his in the industry. But the biggest irony of all; this is based on a story by Smith and yet this is one of the worst roles of his career. Go figure.

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