After Earth (2013)
“Danger is Real, Fear is a Choice.”
Director: M. Night Shyalaman
Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, David Denman
Synopsis: A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, a millennium after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.
Apparently, the original story that resulted in this movie was set in the present day and concerned the attempts of a son to find help for his father after a hunting accident in the wilds somewhere. For some reason (probably commercial), Will Smith, its nominal star and co-producer, decided that the project would be better as a high-concept sf story set on an Earth long bereft of human life, complete with a host of tie-ins (graphic novels, etc). He could have saved himself a lot of money if he’d dispensed with all that high-tech stuff because the sf setting adds nothing to the movie other than to leave you wondering why they bothered. It’s like remaking Deliverance as a Star Wars movie.
The story is set in a distant future in which the Earth’s entire population, having — yyyaaaawwwwnnnnn!!!! — destroyed their home planet’s environment, have set up home on a planet called Nova Prime, after having first successfully waged war with a race of aliens who also had their eye on it as a des. res. The aliens’ main weapon against their human foes were huge beasts named Ursas whose chief method of hunting down humans was by literally smelling their fear. This gave rise to an elite fighting force, known as Rangers, who were literally fearless, and thus invisible to the Ursas, led by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith).
But all this happened in the past, and Raige is on his way home from an extended mission on the very same day that his teenage son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) learns that he’s failed to make the grade at Ranger Academy. To say home life is a little strained is an under-statement, A few years before, Kitai’s older sister (Zoe Kravitz) was killed by an Ursa while young Kitai cowered under a smell-proof glass dome, which is something of an elephant in the room. And matters aren’t helped by the fact that Raige is a little on the cold side. The strained relationship doesn’t go unnoticed by Raige’s wife, Faia (Sophie Okenodo), who suggests that father and son take a journey together. Bad idea, as it happens.
The ship on which Cypher and Kitai are travelling is seriously damaged in an asteroid storm and forced to land on a planet labelled hostile by the ship’s computer. Father and son are the only two survivors, but Cypher has two broken legs and is in urgent need of medical attention. The Raige’s plight is complicated by the fact that the emergency beacon landed miles away when the ship broke up during the forced landing. With Cypher incapacitated, it’s down to Kitai to undertake the arduous journey to locate and activate the beacon.
Jaden Smith has received a lot of flak for his performance in After Earth, but he’s not that bad. It goes without saying that he didn’t win the part on merit — when it comes to nepotism, Smith Sr. is almost the equal of Francis Ford Coppola — but that’s not Smith Jr’s fault, and while there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have won the part if he hadn’t been Smith’s son, it’s not Jaden that drags the movie down, but the tedious pace, the lack of ideas and some glaring plot holes. As the title suggests, the planet on which father and son crash land is Earth, which has now reverted to its natural state thanks to the complete absence of humans. And yet, despite the abundance of plant life the oxygen is so thin that Kitai must coat his lungs with some liquid every 24 hours so that he can breathe properly. This is clearly to add an extra race-against-time element to the story, even though it already has one because Raige Sr. is in danger of dying from his wounds. Similarly, Raige warns his son that all the wildlife on the planet has evolved to kill humans even though all humans abandoned the planet a thousand years before. As for the condor that has a change of heart about the human that was once his prey — just don’t get me started.
After Earth is a major disappointment, plagued by bad writing and a poorly defined thematic treatment. Cypher and Kitai are one-dimensional characters defined solely by one traumatic incident in their past, which has shaped their whole identities and provides the unspoken source of, and influence upon, all their conversations. Kitai’s odyssey is a ham-fisted attempt on the part of co-writers Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan to provide a metaphor for the intense voyage of self-discovery Kitai undertakes muddied by repeated references to Moby Dick. Presumably there’s supposed to be some kind of connection there, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out what it is. It’s true that the Ursa — which is the third survivor of that crash landing — is a constant presence, but it’s hardly the source of all-consuming obsession the way the creature is in Melville’s novel. It’s more tempting — although equally misguided — to view the movie as an unintentional metaphor for Will Smith’s apparent determination to guide his real-life son’s life and career. It’s a simplistic notion, but no more so than After Earth’s treatment of its themes.
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