By Alan Mattli
Over the course of just one decade, director M. Night Shyamalan has achieved the tragic but notable feat of virtually destroying his reputation through his cinematic output alone. Once hailed as “the new Spielberg”, creator of critically acclaimed supernatural thriller dramas like The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, Shyamalan has since transformed into a Hollywood punchline, perceived as a smug would-be-artiste refusing to acknowledge the poor quality of films like The Happening or The Last Airbender.
So joining forces with Will Smith, who is soon entering his third decade as perhaps the most popular icon of contemporary American cinema, may have been an attempt to regain the favour of disappointed fans and increasingly derisive critics alike. Given that Smith conceived the idea of After Earth, which stars him and his son Jaden, and co-produced the science fiction adventure with two family members (wife Jada Pinkett Smith and brother-in-law Caleeb Pinkett) and James Lassiter, who served as producer on several of Smith’s vanity projects (I, Robot, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds), one can make the argument that this is Smith’s film more than it is Shyamalan’s, a view the Indian-American director (and co-writer) might just want to adopt in years to come.
“Some bad films are good ideas badly executed, some are well-executed bad ideas”, Sam Davies wrote in his recent review of Sara Sugarman’s indie comedy Vinyl. The film at hand, however, Davies felt “falls into that gloomy category of terrible ideas badly executed”, which, as it happens, seems an appropriate description for After Earth as well. Smith’s vision of a future in which humans, after they have turned Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland, are exiled on a far-off planet called Nova Prime reeks of pretension; whereas Shyamalan’s direction shows troubling signs of utter ineptitude.
The film opens in medias res, the sound of a spaceship crash booming over the opening credits: walls tear open, people scream, Will Smith is catapulted cartoon-like through a corridor. Jaden Smith’s narration then quickly recaps how humanity ended up on Nova Prime (apparently, the exodus took place 1,000 years before the movie) and how they were then faced by a new threat; an unspecified but nevertheless hostile alien race, who tried to fend off the intruders using “ursas”, bio-engineered blind predators with the ability to smell human fear and the distinct desire to kill homo sapiens. Salvation came in the form of Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a soldier who “knows no fear” and is thus undetectable to the ursas, whose blurry design and shaky cam-heavy staging recall the water-fearing aliens from Shyamalan’s Signs (and who, despite their name, don’t resemble bears in the slightest).
Finally, the story sets in “three days earlier” (i.e. before the unnecessarily chronologically displaced crash). After returning from another long mission, discipline-obsessed General Cypher considers retirement to spend more time with his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) and son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who feels isolated and unappreciated, especially after failing promotion in military school. To improve relations with Kitai, Cypher takes him along for his last assignment, which of course turns out to result in the opening crash, whose only survivors happen to be the two Raiges. Coincidentally stranded on a recuperating Earth, the injured Cypher instructs his son to venture 100 kilometers through the wilderness to recover a beacon from the detached spaceship rear to signal for help. However, conditions on Earth still don’t fully support human life, new species are chasing Kitai through dense forest, and an ursa, the ship’s cargo, now roams the region.
The problems of this film start at the most basic level, namely that the viewer is required to employ suspension of disbelief to a degree that borders on being insulting. According to a warning Cypher gives to his son before sending him out into the – save for a few arresting panorama shots – disappointingly mundane post-apocalyptic Earth, “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans”. Even if one somehow manages to ignore the glaring impossibility of species significantly evolving in just a millennium, this begs the question how the reasoning powers of animals are capable of conceiving the notion of revenge and then exacting it on a species whose role in the near-destruction of Earth’s biosphere is certainly too abstract for, say, a baboon-like killer ape’s brain to register. Interestingly, though, the unleashed ursa seems to be aware of human evolution because it suddenly starts to act against its engineered tastes and kills said apes, man’s cousins.
Such mistakes (there really is no other word for it) would be easier to stomach if Shyamalan and his co-writer, British journalist Gary Whitta, told a worthwhile story that encourages emotional investment. But alas, there is little to none justification for a film strewn with inconsistencies and, in true video game fashion, unlikely plot conveniences: although the planet freezes over at night (circularly engulfing Kitai for some reason), Cypher, who, while conversing with his son via video chat, injects himself with a mind-numbing painkiller, discovers so-called “hotspots”, which, luckily are placed a day’s walk apart from each other.
And the protagonists do not fare much better in terms of plausibility. They randomly, and radically, change their emotions without an apparent reason; lying causes Kitai to pause for several seconds; Cypher, haunted by the ursa-inflicted death of his daughter, never seems to particularly care for what goes on around him. But while the film may at least somewhat convincingly attribute this to his injury and Ahabesque fearlessness – After Earth also partakes in strangely misplaced Moby Dick symbolism, which includes a non sequitur shot of a school of whales –, Kitai’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies aren’t explained away that easily. Indeed, most of them are conceivably not due to any shortcomings of the character but rather to Jaden Smith’s campy, grimace-based acting. Combined with Will Smith’s failure to emote – whether this is intentional or not –, the audience is left with a curiously frigid central conflict, in which father and son act like complete strangers. It is not a good sign when the emotional apex of a film with this kind of focus is the death of an unnamed CGI bird.
However, this lack of genuine emotion does not stop Shyamalan and Whitta (and, presumably, an unbilled Will Smith) from letting their characters spout soapbox dialogue, which transcends the director’s infamously confused environmentalism, a trait that almost single-handedly sank The Happening. Numerous critics have noted the striking similarities between After Earth and the teachings of Scientology; humanity seeking salvation in space and escaping its terrestrial prison. And the parallels by no means stop there: Cypher’s state of absolute fearlessness is presented as an ideal state of mind – disregarding the evolutionary value of fear –, being afraid as a naïve projection. “Fear is not real”, he shouts. “The only place where fear exists is in our thoughts of the future” – slogans which bring to mind the kind of pseudo-psychological hokum scientologists are known for. Moreover, even the film’s aesthetics seem to hint at L. Ron Hubbard’s mass cult: the climax of Kitai’s journey tellingly takes place on top of a volcano eerily reminiscent of the one adorning the cover of Dianetics, Hubbard’s ideological bestseller.
But on a purely cinematic level, After Earth doesn’t evoke Dianetics but the adaptation of one of Hubbard’s science fiction novels. The aura of Roger Christian’s 2000 disaster Battlefield Earth, made with the express intent of honouring Hubbard and his legacy and often named as one of the worst films of all time, permeates M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, from the comedically amateurish performances to the ramshackle plot. And although it is hardly ever fair to compare a new release with a title so notorious that it has been called “Plan 9 from Outer Space for a new generation” (which, in hindsight, seems fairly accurate), with After Earth it is fully justified. It’s that mind-bogglingly awful.
★½ (out of six)