Worth a second look.

While M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a film industry mockery, his style that merges the quiet, ambiance of art house films in terms of look and visuals and Spielbergian camera and story techniques almost can’t be ignored. His latest film After Earth, however, can be, as this is a monotonous, dull science-fiction slog that mixes these techniques and features into a film that has no clear motivations or ambitions outside of being a free-sample taste of the blockbuster season sure to come. How can you tell when a science-fiction movie is in trouble? It has a young child in danger, several wild beasts roaming a vast-open terrain, a spaceship crash, and a lot of beautiful visuals and it still isn’t that interesting or gripping.

The plot: We’re in the future and earth has become an uninhabitable hellhole of a planet. All the humans now have found shelter and home in a new part of solar system called “Nova Prime.” Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is the commander of an organization called The Ranger Corps and needs to take his crew on a mission to earth. He brings along his son, Kitai (played by Smith’s real life son Jaden), who he views as something of a disappointment for his recklessness and his impulsiveness. When an asteroid shower leaves Cypher’s legs broken, their emergency beacon destroyed, and stranded on earth, Cypher sends Kitai out to hunt for the beacon, equipped with material to fight and survive in the treacherous land that earth has now become.

A good chunk of the film is conducted like a modern independent sci-fi, with long stretches going without talking and a prominent focus on the tonality and mood of the events and characters. However, because of this, there is little suspense or impending peril on Kitai’s part. I was consistently reminded of “Life of Pi,” the brilliant adventure film that opened last year to many accolades and acclaim. Suraj Sharma, the lead actor of the film, had to do much of the acting in front of a green screen, and it wasn’t until post-production was he really seen on a boat with a life Bengal Tiger. Not only that, but he was the only actor for much of the film and carried it beautifully through convincing survivalist motivations and tendencies that is character executed with stunning bravery. I’d label it the quintessential film where a young man was in grave danger.

Jaden Smith, unfortunately, does not have the charisma or the personality – at least in the character Kitai – to carry this film almost entirely on his own shoulders. Smith, who is acting much like Sharma did, with a green screen and a maybe a few additional props, seems entirely outgunned by the scope and the task of the project. His emotion isn’t very believable and neither is the character he plays. I can’t really blame everything on him, though. Many young kids would struggle interacting with landscapes and creatures that aren’t really there. The fact that Sharma pulled it off as convincing as he did was something of a true miracle. Will Smith doesn’t do much to elevate the story. 80% of the movie is spent with him helplessly trapped in a pod, giving his son instructions and trying to keep him calm but focused. Neither Cypher or Kitai have much in the way of development; they’re both archetypal adventurers.

Shyamalan’s master-shot comes in about halfway through the film, when Kitai stands on a tree trunk that is about fifteen or so feet long. The trunk lays vertical over a large cliff, and below the cliff are several waterfalls and the tops of gigantic trees. While almost nothing in the shot is authentic, the shot represents a remarkably beautiful visual. It serves as nice symbolism that Kitai is so small in comparison to such a big world that he is next to helpless in this world. Only commanded by his father, who already doesn’t think to highly of him, Kitai’s struggle really becomes amplified in that scene subtly but effectively.

After Earth reminds me a lot of Andrew Niccol’s The Host, which was released earlier this year. The Host was about a world overtaken by tiny sprite-creatures and, what did it choose to focus on? A love story in the middle of the apocalyptic one. After Earth, rather than focusing on exactly why earth became so uninhabitable and soiled, focusing on a middling father/son conflict that, under more competent, exploited writing, would’ve probably been just as efficient. All I can do is regard the bigger, broader, and frankly, more interesting opportunity that wasn’t taken in the face of the lesser one. That’s not how a film should be viewed.

Grade: D+

Check out Nav’s After Earth Review Here.

Reviewed by Steve Pulaski
Read more of Steve’s Influx Review’s Here.
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