After Earth (2013)
Written by Will Smith, Gary Whitta, and M. Night Shyamalan
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
The best movies are conceived while watching Discovery Channel docudramas. This is apparently what went through the heads of the creators involved because After Earth was inspired by a show Will Smith watched on that basic cable channel. From this humble roots came a story about a father and son lost in a remote region after a car crash with only the son able to travel out and search for help before his father died. Then Smith decided to set the story a thousand years in the future and make it a science fiction venture. Also, this was supposed to be the first of a trilogy. The basic skeleton of this film isn’t horrible, but the individual decisions made about its presentation turned it into an awful mess.
Earth has to be abandoned due to climate collapse, and the survivors settle on the distant Nova Prime. Now centuries later, humanity is in conflict with aliens using Ursas, genetically engineered creatures who can smell fear. A man named Cipher Rage rises in the ranks due to his ability to control his fear and therefore make himself invisible to the pheromone sniffing Ursas. Cipher eventually has a daughter and son but loses his daughter to an Ursa attack on their city. Kitai, his son, is now of age to join the military academy but is refused placement as a ranger, the division Cipher serves in. Cipher takes Kitai with him on his last journey before retirement, but an asteroid shower forces them to crash land on the quarantined Earth. Cipher’s leg is fractured, and it’s up to Katai to conquer his fear and reach a high point where he can signal for help from back home.
The first thing that takes you out of this film is the decision to bring on a dialect coach to develop a “future accent.” The thinking was that a thousand years in the future people wouldn’t speak with accents we hear now but a blend of them. That is likely right but also ignores the fact that the English they would speak wouldn’t have the same phonics and grammar of our language. Just look at Middle English compared to what we speak today. You don’t even have to go back that far, look at Shakespeare.
The accent is made even more grating when it’s not consistent, and modern colloquialisms slip into the dialogue. At one point Kitai says something sucks and that stuck out for me. I don’t think youth would still say that phrase so many generations in the future or if they did it’s meaning would have drastically changed. If you are going to reach for speculative authenticity, then you have to go all the way with it.
It is tough to ignore that After Earth is a big-budget vanity project that highlights all the problems with letting movie stars get blank checks from studios. M. Night even expressed regret after the fact that he became involved in the project and I do give him some credit because this was more a Will Smith-driven project and doesn’t have the telltale marks that a terrible M. Night movie possess. Jayden Smith is a bad actor. I can’t speak for his performances as a young child, though child actors often get a pass for flawed acting. Here, with Jayden front and center for 90% of the picture, you just cannot ignore how out of his depth he is, unable to convey a single realistic emotion.
A big problem with the story is the emphasis on stoicism as the key to defeating the Ursa. This means Will Smith plays the whole movie stone-faced with a few notable cracks, and Jayden’s character is leading up to his hero moment when he flushes emotions away. The stoic character can work (see Spock) when you have them juxtaposed with characters on the other end of the emotional spectrum. But in After Earth everything is pure Will and Jayden Smith plus lots of computer-generated animal antagonists. It’s also a really cliche story with themes that have been dealt with much better in other media. If you want a story that handles the conquering of fear with more subtlety and intelligence, Dune has already done it. After Earth’s message ends up feeling like the teachings of L.Ron Hubbard repurposed in a mediocre 21st-century sci-fi picture.
The production design feels bland and uninteresting, drawing parallels with bad science fiction films of decades past. The budget was high enough that there should have been some smarter decisions made about presenting this distant future. I get that there are touches of having the interior of the ship be made of sustainable materials, but I would suspect you wouldn’t just use polished wood and woven reeds on the inside of ship without some sort of processing steps to reinforce them. I mean you are flying this thing through the cold vacuum of space. Everything about the film is lackluster and not worth your time.