The L.A. Weekly, my local free paper, ran a cover story in its most recent issue about how the new internet journalism destroyed Tom Cruise, our last remaining movie star. While reading, all I could think is, “What about Will Smith?” He has as close to a 100% approval rating as any celebrity will ever get. I know some people who hate Tom Cruise with a passion usually reserved for pedophiles and guys on the wrong baseball team, but I don’t know anyone that actually dislikes the former Fresh Prince. Maybe he felt this love and got too cocky? Whatever the cause, he made After Earth and we have to suffer.
Tagline: Danger is real. Fear is a choice.
More Accurate Tagline: Charisma is real. Nepotism is a choice.
Guilty Party: What with M. Night Shyamalan being a favorite punching bag of the internet (for good reason), it would seem he’d be responsible, but he was just a gun for hire on this one. No, this was due to the arrogance of our last true movie star, Will Smith. While most rich daddies would be happy getting their entitled spawn a BMW or small island, that was apparently not jiggy enough for Mr. Smith. No, he wanted to give his son a career. Unfortunately, Jaden Smith lacks pretty much everything that made his father a star.
Synopsis: When a film opens with a bunch of confusing and redundant voiceover, the fault usually lies with some dumbshit executive who demanded an explanation up front for the various mysterious elements of a story. This is because executives have the mental and emotional maturity of preschoolers. In this case, you’re dealing with the biggest star on the planet, and he could give less than a fuck about what some suit thinks. So the pretentious world-building, the front-loaded hand-holding of revelations that will come in due time? All Smith.
A thousand years ago, humanity, led by the heroic Ranger Corps, abandoned a polluted and “destroyed” earth in favor for a new planet. Then some aliens attacked, but we don’t see those aliens, we see their shock troops, a whole other kind of alien called an Ursa. The Ursa is basically an indifferently designed CG mass of limbs that can sense human fear, but one guy, Prime Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith, and yes, that’s seriously his name) figured out how not to be scared. Now invisible to the Ursa, Prime Commander Cypher Raige teaches this technique, called ghosting, to the other Rangers.
His son, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), wants to be a Ranger. He’s great in the classroom but terrible in the field. That’s… that’s a perfect metaphor for the making of this movie. Shame neither Smith noticed. Prime Commander Cypher Raige returns home, and it’s unclear if he’s ever met his family. Will Smith seems to have interpreted “can resist fear to become invisible” as “I am a soulless robot with short term memory problems.” Prime Commander Cypher Raige plans to retire after one last mission, because he’s never seen movies and doesn’t know he’s just doomed himself.
Predictably, this last mission (which was supposed to be a quick trip) ends in disaster. The ship carrying Prime Commander Cypher Raige, and his son, going along because Prime Commander Cypher Raige’s wife, Mrs. Prime Commander Cypher Raige, thinks maybe father and son could exchange some stilted conversation. The transport ship is also carrying a captured Ursa, because reasons. Anyway, the ship crashes on earth, which has now turned into a low-oxygen deathworld populated by prehistoric monsters who like to eat people. Bad luck, right?
Because Smith was binging Lost before writing the story, the ship splits in half. The beacon that will signal an instantaneous rescue is in the tail. Prime Commander Cypher Raige’s legs are broken (and one of his arteries is pumping blood all over the place, so apparently in addition to not feeling fear, he can also function without blood) so he can’t go. It’s up to Kitai Raige to overcome the problem of being bad in the field!
Kitai journeys across the hostile landscape, confronting various animals and flashbacks on route to saving his dad. Oh yeah, Kitai is haunted that, at the age of seven he was not able to save his elder sister — who was also a trained Ranger — from an Ursa. So, hooray for sexism I guess? Anyway, Kitai makes it to the ship, uses the beacon, but not before fighting the Ursa. He manages to ghost at the last moment, and because of this, is able to kill the beast.
He signals the rescue, and Prime Commander Cypher Raige is still alive, despite having a broken artery in his leg for several days. He should have been as empty as a juice box in the Bluth household. In the last, misguided moment in the script, Prime Commander Cypher Raige asks to be stood up. Then, a man who has spent the entire film as an emotionally-closed off robot, chooses to salute his son. His son hugs him. Yeah, that’s the exact opposite of good writing there.
Life-Changing Subtext: Only through the absolute destruction of all emotion can we be safe.
Defining Quote: Prime Commander Cypher Raige: “Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.” I actually like this quote. It makes good sense and belongs in a better movie, specifically one that does not include a character named Prime Commander Cypher Raige.
Standout Performance: Will Smith is basically walking, talking charisma. You can’t help but want to be the guy’s friend. In this movie, he takes all that charm and locks it away in a box. He’s clearly trying not to overshadow his son, but the problem is, what Jaden lacks in charisma, he also lacks in acting ability.
What’s Wrong: In the beginning, we’re told that earth was “destroyed” and shown a montage of pollution and war, because we’re idiots and can’t be trusted to fill in the blanks. Yet when we get to earth, it’s a verdant paradise that looks like it should be knee-deep in Ewoks. Humanity left a thousand years ago, so it had some time to recover. But what about the creatures? Prime Commander Cypher Raige specifically says that everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans. Seriously? When? If it was before humanity left, there is no single trait that would insure a species get ruthlessly hunted to extinction than if it started preying on humans. If it was after humanity left, why would evolution select for traits to hunt prey that was no longer there? I’m fine with earth becoming a savage sci-fi deathworld, but come up with a reason that’s not stupid.
I’ve harped on the performances of both leads who are the only humans in the film for the vast majority of its running time, but one element can’t be glossed over. Both Will and Jaden Smith do an accent, but can’t seem to decide on what it should be. They spend most scenes fruitlessly cycling through terrible British, Caribbean, South African, and something that sounds almost like a hearing impaired seal being pleasured to completion.
Flash of Competence: The most infuriating aspect of After Earth is how close it comes to being a good movie. There really is a lot to like about it. The far future production design is wonderful, the idea of an untested boy braving a hostile environment, a father and a son connecting emotionally after years of distance, a science fiction story starring black heroes, and the simple fact that neither Prime Commander Cypher Raige nor his son ever reflect on the dead earth or humanity’s reasons for leaving, all belong in a much better film. Also, M. Night does an excellent job with the nuts and bolts of shooting, making me think he missed his calling as a cinematographer, or at the very least, not a writer.
Best Scenes: The first hazard Kitai faces is a baboon. It appears on Prime Commander Cypher Raige’s sensors, and he warns his son of an incoming lifeform. It’s the only thing on the sensors so… does that mean there’s nothing else in the woods? Nothing else dangerous? Anyway, Kitai ignores dad’s orders and throws a rock, and suddenly a ton more monkeys appear, showing up as red triangles on Prime Commander Cypher Raige’s readout. Where were they? What happened? Did they suddenly warp in? Were they cloaked? Holy shit can monkeys ghost?
Later, Kitai is taken into a giant eagle’s nest to be eaten by its chicks. That’s when a ton of ligers show up to eat pretty much everything. Kitai does some future karate and defeats the ligers, but all the chicks end up dying. The eagle then follows Kitai, presumably to eat him. Yet overnight, when the planet freezes over because reasons, the eagle decides to save Kitai’s life by sleeping on him. Incidentally, this kills the fucking eagle. It’s like Will Smith wrote himself into a corner, and just threw up his arms and went, “Fuck it, eagle sits on him.”
Transcendent Moment: In the final fight between Kitai and the Ursa, the monster is doing very well, at one point slamming the boy into some rocks (hard enough to kill him, but maybe CG creatures don’t have the proper muscle mass). Kitai, remembering some of his dad’s words, suddenly learns to ghost, and the creature just flat out can’t see him. That’s when I wondered how the hell Ursas get around normally. If they can’t perceive something that’s not afraid, how do they walk? Is the ground scared of them? How about the trees? Why are they not bumping into each other? Are they constantly forced to play a game of Marco Polo with one another, shouting “BOO!” at thin air?
Also, Kitai is forced to use his dad’s “Cutlass,” which is a fancy double-edged future sword. Quick question: did humans forget about guns? I’m thinking that the Ursa, whose only ranged weapon is acid spit, might not do so well when confronted with a high-powered sniper rifle. Yes, I know Ursas can become invisible, but you’re telling me these people can’t make sensors for that? You know, like the one Prime Commander Cypher Raige has that tracks the Ursa’s movements the whole way?
After Earth was intended to be a sprawling multi-platform array of movies, novels, comics, and video games. It failed due to one simple rule: you can buy your son a movie, but you can’t buy him stardom.