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After Earth

Columbia/Tri-Star // PG-13 // May 31, 2013
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]

Review by Michael Zupan | posted May 31, 2013 | E-mail the Author
Welcome the summer that belongs to the apocalypse - Seth Rogen and friends are lining up to die at James Franco's house, Tom Cruise is defending a barren wasteland against formidable foes, aliens will topple cities as they fight giant robots, and Matt Damon is going to wear half an Iron Man suit so he can tell the upper class where to stick it. With the exception of Star Trek however, most people are likely to gravitate towards After Earth, and why not? It stars sci-fi blockbuster veteran Will Smith, and people are undoubtedly curious to see his son Jaden in a major role (no, The Karate Kid doesn't count). Of course, people may think twice about spending their hard earned coin on a ticket if they knew that M. Night Shyamalan was the man behind the camera, and seemingly knowing this to be a detriment, Columbia Pictures deliberately left his name absent from the marketing campaign. Still, the trailer was very promising, as it teased a slew of action in a world just as dangerous as it is gorgeous, with the possibility of tapping into our hearts with a father-son coming of age story. The tagline even hinted at an inspiring thematic element - Danger is real. Fear is a choice. So, despite knowing Shyamalan's involvement, I remained optimistic. Now that I've seen it, here's my advice - This movie is real, but seeing it is a bad choice...

In the theoretical future delivered by After Earth, our planet is destined to become too environmentally unstable for us to survive. As a result, the human race relocates to Nova Prime, and although this exoplanet seems ideal at first, it comes complete with its own share of risks. 1,000 years after humanity's resettlement, survival has become a matter of defending ourselves against an alien race. Our military, the Ranger Corps, exists solely as a defense mechanism against these creatures, and every great warrior is trained by General Cypher Rage (Will Smith), well known for his fearless approach to battle. Being such an important and highly respected figure, Cypher has practically become a stranger to his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith). Hoping to impress his father when he makes a brief return home, Kitai takes the necessary test to become a ranger, but is ultimately denied. Seeing an opportunity to both cheer up and bond with his son, Cypher invites Kitai along for a training mission. A nasty run through an asteroid field cripples their ship however, leaving them stranded on - you guessed it - Earth. As the sole survivors, their mission is to retrieve a homing beacon so they can flag for rescue, but that proves to be no easy task on a planet that's been allowed to evolve without human interaction for over a millennia.

So, we're pretty much expected to rely on two characters to pull us through 100 minutes of runtime, which is a large task considering the amount of exposition they have to convey. Unfortunately, these characters are just not interesting enough to make me give two hoots about their physical and emotional journey. Will Smith, who is generally a pleasure to watch, plays a man who is almost completely devoid of emotion by design, and he portrays this character by remaining completely stone faced from start to finish. More than that, he's completely unlikable, which makes me care that much less about bonding with his son. However, I don't fault his delivery as much as I fault the script, which actually calls for this talented actor to 'take a knee' throughout most of the film so his son can take the spotlight. This would be fine, I suppose, but Jaden simply lacks the experience to carry a film of this magnitude. Much like his father, he spends the entirety of the flick sporting the same expression, albeit one of fear. Furthermore, the rest of his performance lacked anything that could even come close to being genuine, and to be perfectly honest, it was even hard to understand what he was saying at times.

Well, who cares about the characters, right? Perhaps you're going to see this film because you want to shut your brain off for a couple of hours and enjoy a ride that's lush with exotic locations and CGI. Well, if that's your sole purpose for seeing After Earth, you're likely to be disappointed. Although the trailer lit our imagination with visions of beasts who evolved to keep humans at the bottom of the food chain, the film's major obstacles actually come in the form of rapid weather change and a compatibility issue with Earth's oxygen. There are other dangers lightly sprinkled throughout - mostly unimaginative disappointments such as poison, monkeys, tigers and giant birds (ugh) - but virtually none of it packs the wow factor it should. Keeping in mind the main characters are wholly uninteresting, this is a major problem, because all After Earth had to offer otherwise was excitement... and it's just not there.

Before Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan finished the script, Will Smith originally conceived this story as a father and son surviving in the wilderness after crashing their car, and honestly, this film may have been neater and tighter if that was the case. I'll give credit to Smith for adding all this stuff about the world becoming too volatile for us to handle, and subsequently allowing a couple of people to revisit a millennia after the fact... but was it necessary? I mean, it's refreshing to see the direction our world would evolve to after we're dead and gone, but nobody actually attempted to explore this concept. Since Kitai is moving from point A to point B with a clock ticking against him, most of his time is spent hugging whatever safe zone he can find. There's this supposedly epic world out there to explore, but it remains unrealized because we stay away from it as much as possible. So, why even go for the futuristic sci-fi route? Why not just tell the story as it was originally conceived, placing a couple of modern individuals in a part of the world that's mostly untouched by man? Well, there's that typical Hollywood mindset that comes into play here, as it always does - If you throw money at the screen, people will travel in droves to see it, and After Earth is the case in point.

Overall, I wouldn't go as far as saying this film is completely unwatchable, because it isn't. For 100 minutes, I teetered on the border between 'bored' and 'mildly entertained', but I, like most of you, were waiting for something exciting to happen. More and more as time progressed however, I had to come to terms with what I was really watching - An episode of Survivorman on crack, except nobody as charming as Les Stroud hiked in to save the day. All in all, After Earth is 'just ok' (and I'm being a tad generous), and actually makes Oblivion look like a masterpiece in retrospect. Don't be fooled by the marketing ploy, because you're definitely not going to get what you're paying for, and its replay value is practically zilch. Skip It.

-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!



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