I recently viewed After Earth, a space-age thriller created by Will Smith for him and his son Jaden Smith to star in. Will also managed to bag the notorious M. Night Shyamalan to direct his futuristic flick, and the combination of these two Hollywood entities actually made for some great entertainment, although there was ample room for improvement.
Before I go any further, I was extremely surprised to see that the majority of the reviews for this film were negative, as they called it such things as “Scientologist propaganda” or “a setback” for Shyamalan. I honestly cannot see these arguments holding much weight. The movie was entertaining and despite its supposed poor pacing, held my attention for the whole 100 minutes it shot through the projector. Do we have a futuristic Godfather or Titanic on our hands, definitely not, but After Earth deserves more credit.
Minor spoilers ahead, for the numeric rating, see the bottom of the page.
Overall, After Earth was a very exciting movie. It combined beautiful animation with visionary writing to make a very exciting and sincere interpretation of the future. Basically, it was another one of those WALL-E-esque, humans have wrecked the planet type opening. As the movie proceeds, the audience discovers that the professional and distant General Cypher Raige (played by Will Smith) has been completely uninvolved in the majority of his son’s life. His son Kitai Raige (of course played by Jaden Smith) has been working for what we infer to be most of his life to become a “Ranger” (soldier) just like his father. We also realize that Kitai has some rather large shoes to fill, as his father was one of the most fearsome and powerful rangers ever, due to his ability to eliminate fear from his body with a technique called “ghosting”. The General takes his son with him on a training mission as an attempt to reinitiate their relationship, but when the space flight goes sour, they are forced to crash down on Earth (now a quarantined planet). General Raige is badly injured in the crash and he asks his son to go find the other portion of the ship that has crashed miles away and retrieve a beacon to send for help. The remainder of the flick is about Kitai Raige fighting his way through the savage rendition of Earth to save them both.
Although there was a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief (not that I necessarily have a problem with that), the film hit hard with some emotional moments, as well as a few witty one-liners. I personally appreciated the variety of emotions that the film caused me to experience, and was a little surprised that I even felt sad or empathetic in what I assumed to be an action movie. Another interesting aspect of the film was the theme of fear and its true definition. Will Smith’s character is quoted when talking to his son by saying “danger is very real, but fear is a choice.” As the chill slithered down my spine, General Raige continued to explain that fear is simply the anticipation of negative things that could very well never even happen. This fascinating take on one of our core emotions really drew me in, and the way in which they use the phenomenon in the story was rather enthralling.
Despite the above praise, After Earth is far from perfect. The movie is full of “why” moments, and I occasionally felt like they didn’t spend enough time looking over the final product to fix the small plot holes or contradictions that some more observant audience members are sure to pick up on. A few examples include Kitai not stocking up on supplies when possible, or how his father managed to prolong his life far longer than he should have been able to. These were annoying and could have been avoided with more careful writing at the script level, but by far my biggest problem with the film was the fact that Will Smith basically set himself up for failure. Although his son Kitai has fire, passion, and plenty of emotion, he must have gotten it from his mother, because General Raige was one of the most one-dimensional, distant, and flat out boring characters that I have ever come to absorb in my years of film watching. Besides his immense amount of knowledge about everything from the mechanics of a space ship, to how to survive, to the deep understanding of the fallacy that is fear, he isn’t truly passionate about anything and it isn’t until the last minutes of the movies that we even see him become affectionate with his son. There’s reason for it plot-wise, and Will Smith will most likely say that this was an intentional acting choice to be less dynamic than his previous roles, but that would be a cop out. If I were the powerful figure that Will Smith has become, I would never cast myself as such a doomed character. Sure, he could have been just using this movie to make his son look good, but honestly, despite some great moments, Jaden was better in The Karate Kid remake. Will Smith casting himself as the general was like a racecar driver putting a parking boot on his car and punching a hole in his gas tank a minute before the race. I just kept shaking my head every time Will smith would look at the camera, and spew a line of dialogue in military monotone… “Why?”
After Earth was met with extremely harsh criticism. Although I can agree with some of what the critics are saying, I was still adequately entertained from the opening credits to closing credits and I was actually extremely surprised to see all of the negative reviews after returning home later that night.
Bottom line: It was a see it once thriller that had me on the edge of my seat for the most part. Although Will was lackluster for what feels like the first time in his career, his son sported some Smith genes and stole the show (not exactly the hardest thing to do). If you have some extra time this summer, and originally passed on After Earth due to its poor reception, you might want to give this one another look, although I can understand an argument for just waiting to rent it when it comes out, (especially with the army of movies coming out in the next few weeks).
Despite some annoying setbacks, After Earth still delivered a thrilling journey: 6/10