Danger Is Real. Fear Is A Choice
M. Night Syalmalan
It’s been a bad ten years for Shyamalan. After a lukewarm response to The Village, it’s just been downhill. Long gone are the interesting stories, endearing performances and innovative direction, now we’re being fed high-budget mulch. After Earth is simply another course and proves to be just as bland and unappealing as everything that came before it.
Having destroyed the environment, mankind abandoned Earth, in search of a new homeworld. Upon arrival on the new planet, dubbed Nova Prime, humanity discovered it’s not alone in the universe and an unseen, unnamed alien race unleashed beasts called Usra to hunt and eradicate our species. No real explanation for any of this exposition, it’s just clumsily narrated to the audience. After years of fighting these carnal monsters, our forces learn that they are deaf and blind but can smell our pheromones secreted when we feel fear. One particular warrior, Cypher Raige [Will Smith] has honed himself to be without fear and proceeds to execute vast numbers of Ursa, pushing the enemy back. Following this revelation, the military train their Rangers in the art of being fearless. In an attempt to bond with his son, Kitai Raige [Jaden Smith], Cypher allows the teenager to accompany him on his next mission. Mid-flight, the crew encounter an asteroid shower and are forced to emergency jump/warp/whatever and arrive at the long abandoned Earth. The ship crashes and only the two Raige family members survive. In order to be recovered, a distress beacon must be activated but it is located in the tail end of the ship, several days away. With Cypher’s legs broken, he must entrust his son with this mission. To get from A to B Kitai is pitted against some of Earth’s most treacherous entities: cold weather, water, trees, baboons, a parasite infection and a couple of big cats. For those unaware, that was sarcasm. The ‘trials’ are really small scale and pose no genuine threat to the young warrior. But the Ursa survived! Oh no! Will the young Kitai overcome his fear and defeat the beast? Will they be rescued? Will the experience bring the two individuals closer? Spoiler.. yes.
After The Pursuit Of Happyness and The Karate Kid, I was rather looking forward to this film. I didn’t expect a great deal but potentially it could be promising. What started out as a simple Will Smith pitched concept about a father and son on a camping trip suffering an accident and the son having to go through the woods to get help rapidly spiralled out of control. All of a sudden the simplistic setting mutated and was then set in the future, then five others writers got involved and the whole thing fell apart. Watching the film, I didn’t feel as outraged by the performances as other critics and detractors. I felt Will Smith’s stern tone and outlook was decent and while Jaden Smith was very paint-by-numbers and whiney, I felt that was more of a scripting issue than an acting flaw. Having said that, I don’t believe Jaden Smith is ready or proven for the screen, especially not alongside his insanely charismatic father. If anything, this film is a parallel analogy for the Smiths’ respective careers, with a largely different outcome. On top of that, there was a curious creative choice to employ a dialect coach to give the characters this somewhat neutral accent: a strange combination of South African, North American, Australian, British, etc. But the idea feels ill conceived and poorly executed, leaving everyone under the impression it’s simply a bad US southern accent from the late nineteenth century.
The real problem is the script. There’s absolutely no layering to the plot whatsoever, it’s just a case of Character 1 goes from location A to B. Like a poorly conceived video game, there’s nothing else to it. All the elements that are covered in flashback (the war with the alien races, the death of Kitai’s older sister, Cypher’s career as a warrior) would have been significantly superior plot fodder but instead we’re forced to watch a kid pretending to be a poor Bear Grylls. Earlier this year, audiences were subjected to Oblivion and while it was an overall let down, it still had its moments and looked visually stunning. After Earth can’t even claim this and suffers from the same visual problems that Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull had: everything looks like it’s supposed to be enormous in scope and scale, yet feels fake and unimpressive. But it’s not just the CGI, the sets also look feeble and flimsy. If this production was punched out for half of its budget, I’d be moderately impressed but for 130 million dollars, this is simply unacceptable. And to top everything off, the score is horribly forgettable. I’m desperately trying to think back on any melodies or ambient strings that were used and I’m coming up empty. But then, that’s the problem with James Newton Howard, some of his scores are iconic, unforgettable and elevate the story while others feel phoned-in and completely unnoticeable.
Leaving the screening, I wasn’t impressed but found myself defending the film. I have no idea why, maybe I felt bad for Will Smith. But like Avatar, there were simply too many nagging issues. Firstly, choosing not to feel fear is a fucking whacky concept. I’m a massive comic book fan and love DC’s Green Lantern (don’t mention the film) which has a core message about overcoming your fears. Nothing wrong there but the concept of having absolutely no fear, to the degree that the human body stops the accelerated heartbeat, sweating and laboured breathing is surely impossible. But having said that, these Rangers are equipped with suits that can adapt to approaching threats but they can’t seem to emit a gas or even cover up human stink? But then that leads us to the Ursa things. They’re blind and deaf killing machines but smell fear? Ok, I’ll go along with that but how can they also navigate terrain and set up traps to scare humans? They don’t seem to be a very logical creation. Which leads us to Earth. Man has been absent for only one thousand years and every trace of our presence has been reclaimed by nature. I appreciate the line “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans” is arguably designed to scare people away from Earth but I’m pretty sure it’s just for use in a trailer, namely because the notion of a beast evolved to killing humans, despite an absence of humans is baffling. Additionally, in one scene, Kitai is retracing his steps and figuring out the remainder of his journey and lists the encounters by animal. Meaning he’s etched out a timeline of the events by listing “Baboons, condor, hog hole, etc” How does he know about all these creatures if mankind has been absent from Earth for so long? And he never eats anything! We continually see him consuming that syrupy breathing fluid but outside of that, I don’t remember any rations. And why the fuck does the planet freeze nightly? It literally freezes over each night in a matter of seconds and thaws out the very next morning with no effect on the foliage. How has that happened exactly? We’ve only been off the planet for ten centuries. And most frustrating is the beacon itself. A high-tech ship that travels across the stars but has a hand-remote distress beacon? When we left Earth did we forget about tracking vehicles? ‘Cause this thing is damned powerful. It sends out a pulse transmission that literally fills the entire universe. It spans out and expands to every inhabitable area. Mental!
Lazy writing, sloppy directing, poor visuals and cryptic acting decisions ensure this movie will be hated. Not forgotten or ignored, hated. In my opinion, both Smiths will recover from this, they’re simply too valuable to studios. But Shyamalan? This was his last chance. I imagine he’ll be absent for some time, have his massive budgets taken away and be forced to write something decent and clever, rather than just filming something for the sake of it. And chances are, it will probably be pretty good.
7th June 2013
The Scene To Look Out For:
Cypher’s introduction to the audience is fairly memorable. A typically distant military father, he conducts social business at home like a drill sergeant, commanding his son to sit straight, answer clearly and look his father in the eye when he talks to him. Before leaving the table, Cypher calmly reminds his son to ask permission to leave the table, upon parroting his father’s exact words, Cypher bellows, “Permission denied, sit down!” While it could be a subject of ridicule on the internet (seriously, there will be memes soon enough), I felt this was a nice direction for Will Smith, an opportunity to do some actual acting. Shame about the remainder.
Other than what I’ve said above about Will Smith, there’s very little to add. Jaden was an annoying teenager whose coming-of-age story was tedious, rather than inspired. And the supports are so brief that they serve little to no purpose. I’ll go with the giant eagle/condor thing. Yeah, that was my favourite character.. even though it was fucking irritating and made no sense, its presence was about as plausible as every other element of the film.
“I’m not a coward! You’re a coward!”
In A Few Words:
“Needlessly dull, whiney, grating and visually tired, After Earth is just another disposable science-fiction action flick with little to say”