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After Earth Review: Bland Summer Sci-Fi
After Earth is M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, though he’s only partially responsible for the story this time. Will smith wrote it, and then Mr. Shyamalan and Gary Whitta wrote the script from it. So while you can blame Mr. Shyamalan for some of After Earth, most of the blame belongs to Will Smith.
Like almost every other Sci-Fi film this year, humanity has abandoned earth, this time because we ruined the planet (sorry animals.) We’ve settled elsewhere in the universe, for the most part, happily.
The new human settlement is one of the cooler parts of After Earth, and it worked really well for me. With its sail-like building roofs and almost organic ship style, the society seemed set up genuinely somewhere other than earth and yet it didn’t look Sci-Fi generic at all. If only the story had been as cool and interesting.
But the planet we ended up on wasn’t quite as empty as we’d thought, and these aliens (they never get a name) don’t like humans, so they create a being to destroy us. Called Ursa’s, which is a spectacularly unimaginative name, they can smell the fear pheromones coming from humans and then they kill that human in any number of terrible ways.
Will Smith plays Cypher Raige, the first ranger to discover “ghosting,” the ability to face an Ursa without fear, which makes him invisible to them. Cause, you know, alien species that can create life to track us by fear scent wouldn’t bother to add eyes or anything like that, which would make the ursa capable of finding humans easily. The story is only half about Cypher, the other major character is Kitai Rage, played by Jaden Smith, Will’s real-life son. Kitai doesn’t make the cut for ranger, which makes him disappointed and worried that his dad won’t love him anymore.
There’s a bit of tension when Kitai tells his father why he failed, but for the most part Cypher seems sure that Kitai will make it in the next round. Far more damaging is an incident in the past involving Kitai and his older sister, who’s no longer living. Kitai feels responsible for her death while simultaneously blaming his father for not being there to rescue them. See, I told you, family drama. The mother suggests that Kitai accompany Cypher on a training mission so the two can bond a little more, which is where all the trouble starts.
A bit of space travel and one crash later, Cypher and Kitai are stranded on earth, which in the absence of humans has decided to evolve every creature on it to kill humans. This makes little sense, because there aren’t any humans left on earth (we assume) for the animals to kill. So when Kitai and Cypher show up, the animals are woefully out of practice in killing humans, but they try their best to knock off the boy as he travels across a reforested and unrecognizable landscape.
After Earth does best with the family drama elements of its plot-lines. Cypher has some injuries that prevent him from going anywhere and might just kill him while is son is out in the dangerous world by himself. They can only communicate by radio, and Cypher can see what’s around Kitai through a camera, so he can warn him of danger. Kitai, an unproven ranger candidate, has to cross the wilderness alone to recover the emergency beacon from the tail of their ship. Cypher keeps the extent of his injuries secret from his son, even passing up pain killers in order to stay awake and guide him on his journey and keep him from getting too lonely.
Will Smith is a fine actor, and he handles the role of father and superior officer well, suppressing emotion when he needs to, but also showing the strain of having his son so far away and in so much danger while he’s helpless. Jaden Smith decides for some reason in this movie to practice the George Lucas School of Acting and be more wooden than a telephone pole.
Earth as an enemy presents Kitai with some interesting challenges, though for such a dangerous planet it sometimes gives odd breaks, like when he’s paralyzed on the ground and has to wait for it to wear off. I waited in vain for something to come along and eat him. Maybe the animals found him too bland even to eat.
Some things in After Earth just don’t make sense. For instance, if they have survival suits, why isn’t there an emergency beacon in each one? And while we’re on the subject of that beacon, why are there only two? Space travel’s dangerous, so you’d think there’d be a few scattered about the ship in case it breaks into more than two pieces. Or one that automatically goes off once the ship crashes? There were other logic problems, but my biggest issue was the end of the movie.
Before we get into spoiler territory below, I’ll say that while I didn’t end up hating the film, I definitely hated the way it ended. The interesting Sci-Fi world the movie built couldn’t overcome the weaknesses in the plot and Jaden’s flat acting.
More on the ending after the trailer.
So at the end, Kitai must of course confront the Ursa, which is sort of terrifying but also such a mix of parts that it just looks confusing instead of scary. The texture of its skin was too smooth, and it looked like a CGI creature. Cypher has fallen unconscious due to his injuries and so misses the whole fight between his son and the Ursa, though it gets recorded on the survival suit’s camera.
Kitai manages to kill the thing and get the emergency signal off, and help shows up in like five minutes, which is good for Cypher and Kitai but bad for the movie, because it feels too easy, almost like a cheat.
The really big cheat was that Cypher survives at all. He falls unconscious due to a failing arterial shunt that’s been leaking blood for most of the second half of the movie, and he should’ve been dead much earlier from blood loss.
I would’ve liked the movie better if Cypher had died and Kitai never knew whether his father had witnessed him defeating the Ursa. That way Kitai would have to grow up into his own man instead of still being lost in the shadow of his father, though perhaps a half-trained ranger defeating the fearsome Ursa would be enough to make his fame for him.