Mark Reviews Movies

After Earth


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Isabella Kravitz

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 5/31/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 30, 2013

At some point in the future, Earth has become uninhabitable, or at least it has for humans. Other life on the planet, we eventually learn, has thrived after every human being on Earth evacuated for a distant, life-supporting planet, which means two things. First, the damage to Earth is entirely anthropogenic, and second, it might not have been so bad because, after all, there are still living beings on the planet in After Earth. They've evolved, one character says, to kill humans, which then raises even more questions about this scenario.

How and why did they evolve to kill a species that no longer exists on the planet? If these animals adapted to the new environment, wouldn't humanity itself do the same eventually? Couldn't a future human race that develops intergalactic travel figure out a way to make Earth livable again?

For some reason, it seems a better idea than to build massive spaceships, gather every person on the planet, and ship them to an unknown world called Nova Prime where, it turns out, there's already life that—unlike the species remaining on Earth—has actually evolved to kill. Speaking of which, how did no one bother to determine if the planet every human being on Earth is going to call home is already inhabited?

All of this is really to say that screenwriters Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan (who also directed) haven't completely thought through the back story of their scenario, and if they have, it's certainly not conveyed well in the movie's opening passage, which comes across as a half-hearted attempt to create a backdrop out of a reflexive environmentalist message. Although, one has to admit that there is some humor in the cosmic joke played on humanity here: After basically devastating one planet, they go to another that, through its native life forms, instinctively tries to destroy them, and when two humans accidentally return to Earth, the entire planet has a vendetta against them.

The two are Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), a cadet in the Ranger Corps, and his father Cypher (Will Smith), a general in the corps and its most successful warrior. See, the creatures on Nova Prime, called Ursa, are blind but can smell the pheromones humans release when they are afraid; Cypher has developed the ability to be fearless, meaning he is like a ghost to the beasts ("This phenomenon is called 'ghosting,'" Kitai explains in an opening narration that unnecessarily explains this terminology but leaves out so many other more important details). Kitai, on the other hand, falls apart when facing pressure with the memories of the death of his sister at the pincers of an Ursa still fresh in his mind after many years.

So it's yet another cruel joke when the spaceship father and son are traveling on crashes on Earth after an encounter with an asteroid field and an impromptu trip via wormhole travel. Cypher is seriously injured; Kitai is unharmed. The rest of the crew is dead.

In order to reach an emergency beacon in the ship's tail section, Kitai must traverse over 60 miles of hostile terrain on a planet that has an atmosphere unsuitable for normal breathing and a lot of animals that could easily kill him, including an Ursa the ship was carrying that has escaped into the wild. Cypher plans to guide his son using the ship's (surprisingly still operational) systems and a special suit that changes color when it detects motion and provides Cypher a video feed of Kitai's perspective.

The first act is an awkward slog through the movie's initial concept (The forced mid-Atlantic dialects of Nova Prime's human inhabitants are especially distracting) and a heavy-handed introduction to the father-son dynamic, with Cypher treating his home like a military operation and Kitai rebelling against his father while still trying to live up to the man's expectations. As soon as they crash on Earth, though, the movie's potential actually opens up as its scope narrows.

Here's one of those instances where a little mystery surrounding the scenario and characters could be of benefit, especially when taking into consideration how much the strained characterization in the opening act ends up telegraphing just how the story will inevitably resolve. The progression of that story, which is ultimately about Kitai's struggle with fear and guilt after his sister's death, takes the form of a series of trials for the somewhat reluctant hero. These come in the form of chases (He intentionally upsets a baboon against his father's orders, causing a troop of the monkeys to charge him), split-second actions, and, in the movie's key scene, a decision that goes against his father but is actually for the best for both of them, as he takes a swan dive off a cliff as a necessary shortcut to ensure their survival.

It builds to an obvious climax in which Kitai must face his greatest fear—a creature that's been established as a metaphor for fear (By the way, Cypher's distinction between being aware of danger and fear is a bunch of phooey any way one looks at it)—atop an active, flowing volcano (a location that seems to have been decided in post-production, given Cypher simply calls it a mountain). Like the rest of After Earth, it's perfunctory.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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