It’s strange to feel the need to defend a film on the day of its release, but After Earth, the newest M. Night Shyamalan film starring Will and Jaden Smith, has been more viciously attacked the last couple of weeks than any film in recent memory. This is especially odd considering that the film, while certainly containing its share of flaws, is nowhere near the disaster that many people are making it out to be. It takes a very simple Western premise and places it within the frame of a giant science fiction world. Its concepts are no more bizarre than other sci-fi films, nor are its characters given less to do than most summer action heroes. I’ve seen multiple worse films, and even more films with fewer interesting elements to discuss, this month alone. Yet Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, who famously reviewed GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra without seeing it, wonders aloud if it’s the worst movie ever made. All it made me wonder aloud is which has made critics angrier: is the sheer dominance of the Smith Family success? Is it the nose-thumbing Shyamalan has done in the past at critics, especially in Lady In The Water, where one is viciously killed? I appreciated After Earth more than I liked it, but it has plenty of compelling moments, beautiful imagery, and new ideas– and considering Shyamalan’s last two films, that’s a big step forward, one absolutely worthy of praise.
It’s a thousand years since Earth was effectively destroyed by humanity. Humans now live on a planet called Nova Prime, where they are at war with Ursas, cruel and horrible creatures who hunt humans by detecting the pheromones we secrete when we are afraid. One man is totally without fear, the Prime Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who “ghosts” right behind the Ursas by refusing to be afraid of them. Cypher’s son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is training to be a Ranger so that he can fight Kitais like his father, but he has multiple chips on his shoulder: the weight of his father’s impossible expectations, not to mention the weight of having lost his sister to an Ursa. On a mission sent to an off-site planet to train young Rangers how to ghost, they hit an asteroid storm and crash-land on Earth, the ship ripped in half. Cypher is badly injured and unable to move. It is thus up to Kitai to go out into the world and find the part of the ship that contains the emergency beacon that will alert Nova Prime to their whereabouts. Unfortunately, all of the creatures on Earth have evolved to kill humans… and an Ursa that had been imprisoned on the ship to use in training has unfortunately escaped.
The production design is gorgeous, boasting a spaceship unlike any we’ve ever seen. Shyamalan has always been a pretty exceptional world-builder, even when the story itself might let him down. Every detail shines, from the “navi-bands” that serve as communication devices and vital health monitors to the oxygen masks that flash “LINKED” on an LED screen when properly attached. Its interior certainly resembles an actual ship more than the traditional spaceships (the ship’s name, Hesper, not only comes from the evening star but also the name of a famous steamship that crashed in the Great Lakes). Shyamalan also has a gift for memorable images and sounds: from the sliding curtain door of the ship post-crash to a rain of ash at a key moment. I was also thankful for the weaponry utilized in the film, a “cutlass” that is more of a multi-function tool than strictly a weapon. This isn’t a movie where science has evolved into laser guns, force fields, and shiny lit-up cure-alls. This is about a scared child versus the elements, and the deck is stacked against him as much as possible.
The simplicity of the story is both a perk and a downfall. There is, perhaps not without reason, an expectation for size, grandeur, and bombast in summer studio cinema. When you combine the size of this film’s budget and the biggest movie star in the world, expectations increase. This movie sticks with its goals: it’s father-and-son vs. nature, both nature at large and our own human nature. It’s the type of story you’re more likely to see perhaps in October, with a lower budget and lower-wattage stars. The film’s sheer refusal to devolve into non-stop chases was both frustrating as someone who loves chases and exciting as someone who loves seeing something different. Same goes for Will Smith’s performance: it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen him do. The Fresh Prince charm, jokey nature, and ass-kickery are gone. Here, he plays a man without fear, stoic beyond belief, crippled to his chair, unable to utilize his strengths where they are most needed in this dangerous world. It’s understandably hard to connect emotionally to a man without fear, as his emotions are necessarily muted more than anyone we might know. Still, it’s an impressive performance, a necessary departure from his usual routine. It might have been too difficult a task for any actor, but Smith makes Cypher as relatable as any actor possibly could.
There are, of course, problems that can’t be defended. Shyamalan’s strengths involve stillness, silence, and tension; thus, kinetic chase sequences aren’t his forte in the slightest. In one scene, when Kitai jumps off a cliff using a flight suit and is pursued in mid-air, we should feel the rush we felt in similar sequences in Avatar or How To Train Your Dragon. Instead, the seams are apparent, and that magic we yearn to feel is mostly absent. While I had the aforementioned desire for more action, every time it showed up, I longed for the quieter tenser moments to return– there is where Shyamalan excels. There are also a couple too many flashbacks and dream sequences; these moments do build necessary backstory and emotion, but when overused, they begin to interfere with the active tension the film is trying to carry. Also, while Jaden is terrific as the wide-eyed child wrestling with fear, in the couple of moments in which he must be a badass hero, his current short-comings are revealed. I have no questions that Jaden Smith could absolutely become as charismatic in action as his father is, but, much like Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter series, he has yet to master the gamut of emotions and postures (though he nails the emotional scene, which is the most common stumbling block for young actors).
Most of all, I admire the film’s earnestness. Shyamalan has never been one to wink at the audience or to cloak his films in irony. This has made some of his work occasionally corny, occasionally dull, or occasionally both. After Earth has its share of corny moments, but with an intriguing script and compelling actors, corniness can work. A war veteran who has lost a leg insists that his cohorts stand him up so that he may salute Cypher, and Smith’s salute back is earnest– I can hear the sections of Jaded America rolling their eyes, but it’s a nice moment, a reminder of the film’s world at large. The people a thousand years into the future don’t roll their eyes and toss off sitcom quips, which in my mind is a refreshing change. I’d rather live with a few cheesy moments than have to sit through another action film afraid of even tiptoeing towards earnest sentimentality. This sadly makes Shyamalan an easy target: early success, combined with his declining quality of output, make him an immediate punching bag for those who desire to gleefully rip a film apart before they even step in the theater. Obviously not all critics are like this, as some have certainly disliked the film reasonably, including but not limited to the reasons stated above. However, since a large amount of reviews dismiss the film as a nepotistic vanity project (an absolutely absurd thing to lob at this film in particular when all Hollywood studio films carry plenty of nepotism and vanity behind the scenes), it seems like this project was doomed to a low Tomatometer rating from the start. It currently sits at 13%, while The Hangover Part III sits at 20%, to give you some idea of the vitriol people have for this film. After Earth is an interesting summer film with plenty of merit, which those who attend with an open mind will learn. Since it looks destined to bomb at the domestic box office, hopefully it results in Shyamalan returning to lower-budget mood pieces that can fully exploit his considerable talent.