After Earth – 2013
Director M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okendo, Zoë Kravitz, Isabelle Fuhrman
Screenplay by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta
When I was a younger man, I coached basketball for grade school boys and girls. I had a variety of assistant coaches. The way I picked them was a bit unique, but it was effective for me. Whenever I found a parent yelling at their kid a bit too much from the sidelines, I brought him into coach with me. Part of it was because I felt that the parent’s intensity, pushed to the other kids, could help. Having the parent next to me, though, helped to diffuse his concentration from his own kid a bit and let the kid breathe. Coaching is not entirely like parenting, nor should it be. When you are a parent, there is so much more at stake. Coaching has a purpose, and a stake, but in order to succeed, you have to remove your interest from that of the kid.
Kitai (Jaden) Raige’s father Cypher (Will) would be right next to me on the bench, in this film. All communication between the two would be filtered through me.
A lot of people really don’t like M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia went so far as to hide his name from ads for this movie, just so they could give it a fair shot. Although it would be unfair to blame this film’s relative lack of success on the director formerly considered great, he did have a bit of input as to how this film was developed. He did not have all the advice, though. After Earth was produced by nearly every member of the Smith / Pinkett family. It was calculated to be a springboard for young Jaden to go out into the world of movie stardom. Just like Dad. Thing is, with the not so charismatic Will literally overlooking Jaden through out, it feels like the movie has training wheels on. Big, unnaturally humorless training wheels.
The story is two-fold: son, Kitai, is working real hard to be part of some futuristic human military force, but, according to his commander, just can’t make the grade. It doesn’t help that his Dad, Cypher Raige (the “i” is to soften the word, “Rage,” of course) is the human’s best military officer. He discovered some way to fight the made up movie monsters called Ursas, who somehow are seemingly devoid of real eyes. They track their prey by usage of fear pheromones. How do they get their prey to fear them? By throwing other dead prey up on broken tree branches, using them like hooks. How do they see the trees? Apparently trees live in fear all the time.
Back to the son. Of course he can’t impress Dad by not moving up in the military world. It doesn’t help that he cowered in fear when his older sister got killed by an Ursa a few years back. Both father and son feel let down by that. I wonder if they will get over it by the end of the movie. So after Dad yells at the son at dinner for being a loser, Mom (Okendo) asks for him to take it easy on him. Something about not being seen or something. Please forgive me for not remembering which particular cliched parenting conversation it was.
Now to the second fold of the story. Earth was abandoned, about 1000 years ago, due to the fact that it became uninhabitable from centuries of neglect and abuse. Somehow this same lazy civilization managed to pack up eqach human and move them to a new planet, which looks just as busy, but cleaner. So many movies have Earth being abandoned for greener pastures lately, and this time Earth becomes the greener pasture because we left. If we didn’t come back though, there would be no point in having “Earth” in the title.
The journey back, if that is all it is, might be a lot of fun. There are many big predators now. Most animals seem to have evolved since we were gone, although not entirely logically. Now big cats hunt trees in packs, and monkeys live in a hybrid of differing habitats. Throughout this environment, we have periodic freezes which don’t seem to kill anything but helpful creatures. Why is it that all these big animals can breathe the air, but we still can’t? They said something about gravity, but then they said something about coating the lungs to fight the toxins. Oh, and there is one of those fear hunting creatures, seemingly brought along just to be the big bad guy at the end of the film.
There are so many places this movie where exploring could have been fun, if they had just consulted a scientist somewhere along the way. They don’t though, so we have to suffer through animals as plot devices. No amount of special effects can make jungles and their animal life survive a random nightly freeze. Do the animals look real? It doesn’t really matter, if you don’t use them right. Steven Spielberg got more out of his broken shark in Jaws than any scene derives here. And there is no comparison to how his glass of water in Jurassic Park.
This, I suppose, is my biggest concern with Shyamalan. He used to live on tension that he built into his scripts. This film and The Last Airbender are completely devoid of such moments. Part of this is the choice to constantly go back and forth with the flashbacks. We get it, his sister died. The scene he dreamed on the boat could have covered it, but he doesn’t trust his audience anymore. Perhaps years of increasingly bad reviews has taken that from him. It would be interesting to see what he could do once he stops caring.
Having Will and Jaden Smith in the movie is a big sticking point, but it’s not Jaden that is the problem. Will is literally a somber frown face throughout. He is more a caricature than a person, giving his son no vibe to work from. This is easily his worst performance. While he is nowhere near Fresh Prince anymore, Will Smith is not Tommy Lee Jones, or Samuel L. Jackson. He really should not have tried to be. Jaden does the best he can with what he’s got. It ain’t much, but it’s not the kind of performance that kills a career. He just needs to get his groove away from the womb and see what happens.
(** out of *****)