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Overall Rating

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Worth A Look: 0%
Average: 28.57%
Pretty Bad39.29%
Total Crap: 32.14%

3 reviews, 10 user ratings

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After Earth
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by Brett Gallman

"Like watching someone's post-apocalyptic family vacation video."
2 stars

Given the effort to bury his presence in the film’s marketing, it’s easy to assume that “After Earth” is another retreat into obvious, mercenary blockbuster filmmaking for M. Night Shyamalan, a director still smarting from the lukewarm (or worse) reception of his most recent, more personal efforts. However, this isn’t exactly a case of a desperate filmmaker giving himself over to a star’s vanity project (the film was conceived from the ground-up by Will Smith); for better or worse, this feels at least feels like Shyamalan’s effort to reestablish and impose his voice onto a fairly blank concept (this isn’t even the first post-humanity Earth film to arrive this year).

The struggle ultimately results in a stalemate: “After Earth” is somewhat discernible as a Shyamalan film but merely serviceable in this ever expanding post-apocalyptic landscape since the director is often an ill-fit for the material.

It begins with the requisite prologue, which jumbles a spacecraft’s crash landing with a voiceover narration that catches viewers up to speed: a thousand years in the future, the Earth has been abandoned after the planet revolted against mankind’s careless treatment (the logical conclusion to “The Happening,” I guess). Once humanity relocated to another planet, it established the Ranger Corps, which is charged with protecting its number from extraterrestrial menaces (such as the Ursa) and exploring the galaxy.

Our narrator is Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), an impulsive, adolescent would-be Ranger whose dad (Will Smith) just happens to be the Über-Ranger who discovered the art of “ghosting,” a process that prevents the body from producing fear-induced pheromones that the Ursa sense like sonar. Due to the elder Raige’s absence, the two have become estranged, so matriarch Faia (Sophie Okonedo) suggests that Kitai join Cypher on a routine mission into space. The ill-fated voyage leaves the two stranded on Earth, where everything has evolved to kill humans; with Cypher’s legs broken, it’s up to Kitai to make a days-long journey to recover an emergency beacon.

For a film with such an expansive backstory and a mouthful of a setup, “After Earth” gives way to a relatively lean, intimate survival narrative. Such an approach is a Shyamalan trademark, as he spent the past decade tackling big ideas and funneling them through small, personal stories. In this case, “After Earth” is a refreshing change of pace during the blockbuster season—while it’s certainly an impressive, polished production, it isn’t concerned with the typically grandiose post-apocalyptic stakes. Neither the fate of the world nor humanity is on the line, as the film hones in on this duo’s plight. Even its sparse subplots are character based: both are haunted by the death of their daughter and sister (Zoe Kravitz), a critical past event that continues to spur the underlying tension between the two.

The focus is welcome, but it becomes a bit of a turgid chore in the hands of Shyamalan, who trudges through the proceedings at one speed. “After Earth” isn’t his most measured effort, but it features his signature deliberate approach, which diffuses down to the level of dialogue. Everything feels a bit too stilted and mannered (a common Shyamalan tic that’s mutated into a tumor), which puts the style at odds with the otherwise swashbuckling, YA novel adventure story that finds a young kid avoiding evolved wildlife. It’s the stuff of Edgar Rice Burroughs, “King Kong,” and “The Lost World,” and there’s a cool fantasy vibe that’s unfortunately snuffed out by Shyamalan’s stultifying hand.

That hand also contributed to the film’s screenplay, a leaden endeavor that never quite embraces the swiftness of the conceit. Rather than allow viewers to get swept away by the proceedings, the film saddles the elder Smith with the task of walking them through it. With his legs broken, Cypher is relegated to narrating Kitai’s perilous journey, leaving viewers with a vicarious intake; whatever nepotistic implications hover around the project are only magnified by the feeling that we’re watching Will Smith watch his kid assume the role of blockbuster star. Along the way, there are exposition dumps and cliché platitudes that hammer home the film’s themes that are destined to culminate in a climax that’s pre-ordained the moment the film introduces the concept of “ghosting.”

If you’re going for a character-driven blockbuster, you could pin your hopes on worse stars than Will Smith—but you could also treat him better than he is here. Relegating him to propping up in a ship with broken legs is limiting enough, but his Cypher Raige is so detached that he barely registers any sort of screen presence. It’s not that Smith can’t pull off the terse, laconic type—it’s just that it certainly doesn’t play to his strengths since it all but drains him of his natural charisma and serves to strip the film of its gravitas.

Some of the scripting doesn’t help matters, either, especially when it goes out of its way to paint Cypher as a nigh deadbeat dad who’s more interested in being a drill sergeant than a father. At one point, he barks an order that insists that it’s okay if his son wants to get himself killed, which rings outrageously false.

The younger Smith is fine as Kitai, though he especially struggles with the bizarre, affected accents that resemble a mix of Caribbean dialects and Tom Hanks’s far-flung future drawl in “Cloud Atlas” (if any of Shyamalan’s auteurist stamps are on display, it’s definitely his penchant for bizarre vocal inflections). Again, it’s easy to be cynical about Smith casting his own son, but Jaden is talented enough for a role that doesn’t require a whole lot of emoting (his arc actually demands that he become more Zen like his father, a not-so-subtle nod to Smith’s own Scientology leanings).

“After Earth” is often at odds with itself on this front, too—while Kitai must learn to suppress his emotions, Cypher must relent on his gruff façade and show some warmth towards his son. The only problem is that Shyamalan has found it difficult to capture anything approaching humanity with his recent efforts, and that continues here; “After Earth” may feature emotional beats (and even a sparse amount of humor), but most feel hollow and obligatory—remarkably, this real-life father-son duo never seem to connect in any meaningful way. There are moments when the elder Smith's restrained performance works, as Cypher exhibits cracks when his typically stone face falters with darting eyes and a cracked voice that betrays his frosty pretense. I wish there were more moments of that nature to more forcefully guide the emotional undercurrent.

Instead, “After Earth” never justifies its self-seriousness, nor does it ever feel quite as two-fisted as it should. It certainly has all the working parts and makes the case for Shyamalan’s ability to helm a competent production: the film is rich in visual design, top-notch special effects, and a memorable score from James Newton Howard. Conceptually, Shyamalan has molded a fully realized, lived-in world—he’s just failed to inject it with a spark or a pulse, so, like “Oblivion” before it, “After Earth” mostly functions as an empty fetish piece, only it doesn’t utilize its main star as well.

Does mere competence put Shyamalan back on the comeback trail? If we’re grading on a curve that rewards safe, lateral moves, then it’s hard to argue that something like “After Earth” isn’t more successful than “The Happening.” However, the latter film (along with “Lady in the Water” and “The Village”) at least represented some element of risk—there’s a distinctive weirdness to Shyamalan’s imagination that once served as a boon. Now, it’s such a box office poison that it’s effectively muted here in favor of a stock blockbuster outline.

“After Earth” sometimes resembles a Shyamalan film but never quite feels like one. For many, that's likely a benefit--I might prefer his ambitious failures to this disposable exercise in competence, though.

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originally posted: 06/01/13 06:07:23
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User Comments

9/27/18 Charles Tatum No disaster, but don't hold your breath for a sequel 3 stars
5/30/17 Bryan He's had quite a few shots lol. 1 stars
3/14/17 David How can the director's choice of which script to direct not be the director's fault? 2 stars
3/23/16 David H. Worse than having wisdom teeth removed 1 stars
2/17/14 marees wow! absolutely fantastic film review. I bought the blu-ray because I am will smith and sci 2 stars
11/02/13 mr.mike Not as bad as its rep. 3.5 stars. 3 stars
8/17/13 Man Out Six Bucks Looking forward to "After Shyamalan" 2 stars
8/01/13 Suzie Williams Wanted to like this movie but it was so slow. Wasted potential. 2 stars
6/19/13 Pierre Mosbey Terrible 2 stars
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  31-May-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 08-Oct-2013

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