It hasn’t been so easy for M. Night Shyamalan since entering Hollywood. There is, of course, the infamous graph showing his downward spiral to horribleness via Rotten Tomato ratings. If the trend in that graph continued, then After Earth would actually have a negative score. However, with both Will and Jaden Smith in the film, a screenplay written by someone else, and a massive budget, things looked somewhat up. Could it be that Shyamalan has begun the long slog up to respectability and away from running gags?
If you believe that it’s a slow slog, then yes, it could be, because After Earth is not as bad as The Last Airbender. Yes, you heard it here first: After Earth is not as bad as one of the worst big budget films ever released.
So, better than bad? It still ain’t good.
Director: M. Night Shymalan
Release Date: May 31, 2013
One of the worst sins of science fiction is when it puts style before substance. What makes great science fiction is when there’s actually science involved, when you can understand the why and how even when everything is pretty fictitious. After Earth is all style and no substance, which makes for bad science fiction. What else makes for bad science fiction? Plot holes the size of trucks.
(Ed.: There are so many plot holes in this film that I’ll be inserting snide remarks into the next few paragraph.)
After Earth takes place 1,000 years in a future where mankind has left Earth after destroying it to settle on another planet. Unfortunately, there are some aliens that want to kill us as well (It’s unclear why because why explain things). In order to kill us, they create blind monsters that sense our pheromones (instead of creating guns that shoot us or massive bombs that blow us up or, you know, monsters that can see). Thus the monsters can literally smell our fear (yes, that’s an actual line from the movie). In order to defeat these monsters, soldiers learn how to ghost, which basically means to have no fear and thusly not secrete pheromones (nope, not true or possible).
Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is one of the best ghosters and soldiers humanity has, but he’s a distant father because he’s trained himself not to feel (don’t worry, they spell out every emotion in dialogue just in case you can’t pick up on the obvious). Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is his son who is afraid of things and thusly can’t live up to his father’s expectations. The two take a trip in order to bond, and during the transportation, they are forced to crash land on Earth, which is now a jungle (and for some reason, despite being a plentiful paradise, completely restricted to humans). During the crash, the ship splits in half and Cypher is injured (I’m not even going to go into how randomly dumb the ship design is). It is then up to Kitai to get from one part of the space ship to the other to set off a distress signal (because, despite the computers on the ship working, distress signals need to be sent by some weird handheld device). Also, one of those pheromone smelling aliens was on the ship they were on and survived the crash (you’re kind of not supposed to know that, but you do).
And so our long journey begins with only Will and Jaden Smith to keep us company. Earth has (de)evolved a bit, there are lots of killer animals, and it freezes every night except at certain warm spots that Kitai must get to before night fall. He’s also only armed with this cool tube thing that shoots out whatever kind of blades he wants (because in the future killing things with guns is too damn easy). Basically, we’ve got a videogame as Kitai must also inhale some weird medicine every so often like a a life potion so he can breathe on Earth. This would actually all be fine if the film’s premise wasn’t set up in ten seconds and the dialogue so blatant, it almost sounds like an instruction manual to Science Fiction 101.
In fairness, once the film is only Will and Jaden and the majority of the exposition stops, it can actually be enjoyable. Both are competent actors, and while people may have issues with Will’s almost emotionless performance (he’s damn near a Vulcan), it had a certain subtlety that was surprising. Jaden is also a strong enough actor to carry the role, though someone decided everyone should speak in weird future accents that ruin a lot of his performance just from being annoying. His character is also forced to jump through the most plot holes and eventually many of his decisions make little sense.
But we’ve come this far and haven’t said a single word about Shymalan’s direction. It is not awful. Evidently, he learned a few things from completely bungling the action in The Last Airbender, and this time kept things simple and competent. There’s still plenty of his flair going around with some awkward shots (some work, others don’t), but he shows that he’s not completely incompetent at making movies. We can all agree that’s a step up from a few of his previous entries. While the film definitely has some structuring issues both in story and pacing, he doesn’t bungle it so badly that you absolutely hate it to death.
This is far from a good movie, but there was definitely something there to enjoy. The relationship between Will and Jaden could have been executed better, but it also wasn’t terrible. It’s easy to get sucked into the action, even if a lot of it makes no sense and never builds to its full potential. There are obviously a lot (and I mean a lot) of missed opportunities with this movie, but it is not completely unwatchable. Not really high praise, but you have to give it credit; it could have been worse.