Movie Review: After Earth
By Matthew Huntley
June 18, 2013
After Earth has taken quite a beating and will likely be a frontrunner at the 2014 Razzie Awards. And while the negative buzz and harsh reviews aren’t completely unfounded, it would be unfair to label this movie “a complete disaster.” It’s bad, sure, but mostly on a silly and inconsequential level, and not necessarily an offensive or anger-inducing one. The movie was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has become somewhat of a stigma in Hollywood and with audiences, but as an M. Night Shyamalan movie, After Earth is luckily a farther cry from his worst (The Last Airbender) than his best (The Sixth Sense), which is at least something.
Like so many recent science fiction movies, After Earth takes place in the distant future, after an apocalypse has rendered Earth uninhabitable. The combination of war and ecological contamination has forced the human race to relocate to a different solar system called Nova Prime. Over the course of 1,000 years, humans thrive in their new world, developing sophisticated technology and adapting to the different environment. However, they’re not without threat. An evil alien race called the S’krell wants to conquer Nova Prime and they unleash grotesque, monstrous creatures called ursas to hunt and kill humans. The ursas are technically blind, but they can still detect humans through their fear pheromones. The way to defeat them, we learn, is by training oneself in the art of “ghosting,” or the total absence of fear and other emotions.
This is something General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has learned to do. He heads The Ranger Corps, a peacekeeping organization that trains and protects humans from the ursas, and his ghosting skills have earned him the reputation of master. It’s no wonder his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), feels he has so much to live up to and prove as a young cadet. Kitai is the fittest, fastest and smartest one in his class, but despite his impeccable records, his commanding officer feels he’s not quite ready to be a full-fledged ranger because of his ego and attitude, and when his father returns from a mission, he sees that too.
There already exists an emotional distance between Cypher and Kitai following a tragedy involving Kitai’s sister (Zoë Kravitz), whom we see in flashbacks. When Cypher announces his retirement, his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) thinks this would be a good time for he and Kitai to heal their wounds and find each other again.
Cypher orders Kitai to join him on his final training mission to another planet. On the way, their ship, which is a carrying a dormant ursa, runs into an asteroid storm and they’re forced to crash land on Earth, a planet that Kitai has only heard stories about and knows used to be considered a paradise. Not anymore. For Kitai, it’s harder to breathe and he must inhale special oxygen-enhancing fluid to survive. He must also avoid mutated baboons, leaches, snakes and eagles.
The central conflict of After Earth finds Cypher and Kitai as the sole survivors of their crash. With both of Cypher’s legs broken, Kitai must trek over 100 kilometers by himself from the head of their ship to its tail so he can retrieve a homing beacon and fire it off into space. The story boils down to Kitai putting his skills to the test whilst proving himself to his father. Luckily he has a wrist communicator and his advanced space suit comes equipped with digital readouts and cameras so Cypher can guide him and follow his every move.
After Earth wants to make a bold statement about how “fear is a choice” and that’s it’s just “a figment of our imagination.” It also wants to serve as a cautionary tale about the negative effects of mankind. These are powerful themes, but they’re trapped inside a movie that’s too simplistic and structurally traditional to make much of an impact on us. As a sci-fi adventure, we’ve seen or read stories like it before; we’ve also experienced a similar father-son relationship across several other genres. In both respects, After Earth doesn’t stray far enough from the norm to really excite or engage us. Much of it feels just plain silly, especially the action scenes involving an eagle, which have a cartoon-like quality and lack credibility, even for a movie like this outrageous.
I’ll go on record to say the movie isn’t as bad as its reputation would indicate. It’s merely subpar sci-fi, equipped with standard-issue special effects, action and emotion. If anything, I felt the movie was too short and skimped on the themes that could have made it a lot more interesting, like the concept of ghosting or the character development of Cypher and what makes him so cold and stoic, or even the history behind Earth’s fall. The story by Will Smith likely expanded these points in greater detail and they were probably more apparent in an early cut of the film, but the final theatrical release has been simplified to mediocre at best. As a result, we walk away from After Earth with a “meh”-type feeling, which I guess is still better than anger or resentment.