After Earth (2013)

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After Earth is a film that got severely and unfairly panned when it was released. Its box office performance was dismal and that was a shame because the movie is a real gem. Fortunately it’s on Netflix and I would encourage you to give it another go if you passed on it in theaters. This film is head and shoulders above the other post-apocalyptic film released that year, Tom Cruise’s messy Oblivion.

Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith take the two leads in this picture and although Will Smith is the heavier screen presence, the film’s star is definitely Jaden.

In the near future, an environmental cataclysm forces the human race to abandon Earth and settle on a new world, Nova Prime.

One thousand years later, The Ranger Corps, commanded by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), comes into conflict with the an alien race called the S’krell, whose secret weapons are the Ursas, large predatory creatures that hunt by “sensing” fear. The Rangers, however, have developed a technique called “ghosting” wherein they can mask their fear and remain invisible to the Ursas.

Cypher’s son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is training to become a Ranger, but his application is rejected because of his lack of proficiency in the field. The general is disappointed and there is the expected father-son anger. Before he retires the general is going on one last trip and his wife Faie convinces him to take Kitai along, presumably in the hopes that it will help heal the rift between them.

There is a lot to work out, however. In flashbacks we learn that Kitai blames himself for the death of his sister Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) at the hands of an Ursa. He also blames his father for not being there to rescue them both. Cypher is stoic and undemonstrative, qualities that make him an excellent general but not an effective father.

During flight, their spaceship is caught by an asteroid shower forcing them to crash-land on the now-quarantined Earth. Both of Cypher’s legs are broken, and the main emergency rescue beacon damaged. Cypher instructs Kitai to locate the tail section of the ship, which broke off on entry to the atmosphere. Inside is the backup beacon which they can use to signal Nova Prime.

This is where the film really begins and where Jaden really shines. Unfortunately the character that he plays has obvious problems. He is willful, does not listen  and is prone to panic. It is these characteristics that his character has to overcome in order to succeed and to stay alive.

Despite the story being somewhat predictable, the film still manages to launch some surprises at the viewer and even a few genuine scares. The scenery is lush and beautiful and the cgi effects are subtle and understated for the most part. Will Smith spends most of the rest of the film laid up and only able to offer advice but his presence mitigates Kitai’s adolescent behavior until the communication is severed and Kitai is forced to manage on his own which, when he finally does, provides a satisfying payoff.

The film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but has none of that filmmaker’s usual plot twists and turns. Shyamalan brings a stately and an understated approach to the action and the alien creatures. He does yeoman work as a director-for-hire in bringing Will Smith’s movie to life.

The only issues I have with this film is its predictability. As soon as Kitai is told that he will not be graduating and joining the Ranger Corps and the reason why, then you know that the character will have to overcome that very flaw in order to survive. As soon as you see that the ship on which they are traveling contains a giant Ursa egg… well, as Anton Chekhov said: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Here the Ursa egg is shown prominently in act one, so it’s no surprise when a fully grown Ursa threatens Kitai by Act Three.

I also really did not buy the role of the giant eagle. It was more a mythical Roc than a natural eagle and its implied self-sacrifice to save Kitai was patently ridiculous. Also… lions climbing trees to raid nests? I know this is a future Earth, but… come on!

Still, aside from those there was a lot to like. I loved the look of the film. I loved the interesting look of the technology and how the film doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with heavy explanations about what it is and how it works. There is very much a “show, don’t tell” attitude about it and that I very much liked.

I also loved Will Smith’s understated performance as General Raige. It was the perfect counterpoint to Jaden’s hyperventilating turn as Kitai.

It’s a real shame that this film did not do very well at all in theaters because there is a lot here. I hate to say this but I really do believe, despite Will Smith’s box office power, that this film would probably have done better at the box office if the cast were white. The only film with a majority black cast that does big business in movie theaters are ones where they play slaves or servants.

In a science fiction film… and in charge of humanity? America don’t buy that, apparently.

But you should watch After Earth. It’s on Netflix. Check it out.

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