Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth

Review by Matt Finley

M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out, co-written with Gary Whitta (THE BOOK OF ELI), called AFTER EARTH.

In it, humans have ruined the planet, skedaddled to an off-world colony, gotten predatored by aliens who can smell human fear, and fought back by training select individuals – an elite force called the Rangers – to psychologically suppress their fear response (a process called “ghosting”). Real-life celebrity father and son Will and Jaden Smith (the former of whom has a story credit) play famous Ranger, Cypher Raige, and his determined wanna-be Ranger son, Kitai.

When they crash land on the abandoned Earth, which has become a lush, neo-prehistoric forbidden zone of ferocious animals and ruthless climatological fluctuations, a crippled Cypher sends Kitai on a five-day trek through the wilderness to retrieve the ship’s lost beacon – their only means of summoning Cypher’s Ranger buddies.

Even for a typical coming-of-age/hero’s journey type adventure romp, AFTER EARTH is incredibly streamlined and digestible… often to the point snooze-induction. Lodged uncomfortably between a fantastical adventure tale for kids and a tepid action flick for adults, Shyamalan’s film had all the potential for the simple, smart sci-fi of a savvy YA adaptation – THE HUNGER GAMES for example – if only there were more than two characters, one of whom is immobilized and sporadically unconscious. 

Granted, even with a couple jacked-up legs, Cypher is able to keep in constant, glowering contact with his son through a fancy camera screen thing on the wrist of Kitai’s Jr. Ranger suit. It’s one of innumerable frustrating gadgets the film introduces, all of which add up to a staggeringly advanced future society where technology has developed just far enough to be completely unhelpful to the film’s protagonists.

 Portable 3-D body scanners can render HD projections of Cipher’s mangled gams, but can do nothing to treat him; Cypher can view and scan miles of the planet’s surface in real-time via swarms of flying drones, but not one can pop over and nab  the lost beacon; Kitai’s super suit can magically sense enemy proximity, but can’t keep him warm in the snow.

Any one of these complaints alone could be written off as spastic nerd rage or taken as a begrudging exchange for whatever inevitable drama or action was attained as a result of the technological shortcoming… together, they add up to a pile of unapologetic MacGuffins and expositional devices clumsily hidden behind superficial genre trappings in order to lazily propel a half-cocked emotional arc about family and fear.    

Anyone hoping for the sass-spouting, alien-busting Will Smith of summers passed will be disappointed to find the actor formerly known as Fresh Prince playing a dour, severe military lifer. Also: Jaden Smith his weird. He talks in some kind of bizarre half accent, and whenever he gets intense (which is, like, all the time), his exhaustive brow crease makes him look like a creepy li’l Klingon. Just sayin’.

The best thing I can say about AFTER EARTH is that it looks real nice. The production design on the ships, spacesuits and futuristic architecture is as minimal and sleek as the narrative is simplistic, managing to be unobtrusive while avoiding avert cliché.

Shyamalan has always had a great sense for color, from the melancholy blue wash over UNBREAKABLE to the high-contrast yellows and reds of THE VILLAGE. AFTER EARTH is no exception. If you can deal with a nagging environmental subtext and some laughably cartoonish CG animals, there are some wonderfully composed shots and impressively realized locations, spanning the  harsh deserts of the off-world colonies to the muted machinery of interstellar ships and, ultimately, the lush greens and blues humanity’s one-time home.

There was a time not long ago when a summer release by M. Night would have been heralded as “from the visionary director of THE SIXTH SENSE.”  Maybe a voice would say “you’ll never guess how it ends!” Definitely his name would’ve appeared in the title. But AFTER EARTH, a lightweight sci-fi trifle that barely justifies a theatrical release, is also after THE LAST AIRBENDER (not to mention after THE HAPPENING), so the PR machine has conveniently omitted the director and co-writer’s name from promotions.

In a way, it’s a shame. This is certainly Shyamalan’s best film since his gorgeously shot, unforgivably daft THE VILLAGE.

When I say barely worthy of theatrical release, I don’t mean to dismiss it entirely: AFTER EARTH would feel right at home as a top-shelf made-for-cable offering on SyFy, or even as the keystone of ABC Family’s Father’s Day lineup, but the story is so compact, the stakes so low, and the world-building so lackadaisical that the film never achieves a dramatic scale befitting of an auditorium screen’s dimensions. (2 out of 4 stars)

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