At the Movies with Alan Gekko: After Earth “2013”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Action/Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Billy Campbell, Zoë Kravitz, Tessa Allen, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman, Lincoln Lewis, Shiva Prabhukumar, Isabelle Fuhrman/ Runtime: 100 minutes

I think it is safe to say that there aren’t that many film helmers out there who manage to get right off the bat success on the level that M. Night Shyamalan did. Indeed this is the film helmer who came roaring into the world of movie magic with the successful, on both a financially and received level, slice of cinematic pie that is The Sixth Sense and then followed it up with a pair of films that were just as good in Unbreakable and Signs in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Along with that, M. Night also found himself acquiring a distinct reputation for insightful helming, intelligent narrative regaling, and for his films all having some dynamic twist endings which really made people start to see him as the next Alfred Hitchcock in many respects. Unfortunately for our intrepid helmer things haven’t been going so hot lately. Indeed his films following Signs have been met with trepidation from both the film goer and the film reviewer alike. Yes M. Night most certainly didn’t have anywhere left to go but down, down, down, but fear not for he might still have a good movie or two up his sleeve. An opinion that I am willing to back up with evidence that takes the form of the fact that even in these “lesser slices of cinematic pie”, he is still trying. Thus just who to blame for these recent setbacks might still be a big question mark, but  what isn’t difficult is to point out that he has truly become quite wayward on his filmmaking journey. Unfortunately this is fairly obvious to see in even the film I am reviewing today. Indeed that is because After Earth, like every film of Shyamalan’s made after 2002, is one that has some serious potential and a degree of skill to it, but alas is also a film that still manages to trip over its own two feet and fall flat on its face thus once again serving as proof that something has gone seriously wrong with this once-highly regarded filmmaker and his helming mojo.

The plot is as follows: After Earth takes us to a possible future where humanity has, for all intents and purposes, annihilated the planet. To that end, we see that it has been over 1,000 years since our species left Earth under the lead of a planetary military squad. In the time since, our species has effectively set up new residence on a world known as Nova Prime where we lived in tranquility and harmony. That is until we found ourselves engaged in conflict with aliens that were locals of the planet that, although blind, could still hunt man due to the pheromone we exude when we are scared out of our minds (who knew?) Suffice it to say that mankind looked to be down for the count….that is until a group of people found a way to mask their fear and as a result helped tilt the field of combat in favor of mankind. Thus as our narrative proper begins, we see that one of the more famous of these so-called “Ghosts”, a man by the name of Cypher Raige is preparing to finally retire in order to make up for lost time with his family. His son Kitai however is aiming to follow in dear old Dad’s shoes and become a member of the same elite unit. However despite doing better than everyone else he is tragically denied entry (something that dear ol’ Dad may or may not have a hand in incidentally). Thus, to curb the growing rift between the two, we see that family matriarch Faia gently pushes at Cypher to take Kitai with him on an integral assignment on a foreign planet in the hope that it will reconcile the two. Unfortunately things don’t go exactly as planned and soon the ship has crashed on Earth, the crew is dead, Cypher is horrifically hurt, and only Kitai is able to get them help. Help that incidentally will only come if our young intrepid hero is able to get through our previous home, reach the tail of their downed vessel, and reacquire an emergency beacon that will help to ensure they are rescued. Thus it is up to young Kitai to rely on both his own skill and determination to say nothing of his Dad’s continual stream of verbal wisdom over the radio in order to get them the rescue that both so badly need.

Right off the bat I guess I should just come right out and admit it to you dear reader: this film is no more and no less than a B-level film spruced up courtesy of some decent work in the special effects and visual departments. Faring a lot worse than that is the fact that the film’s narrative is horrifically linear as well as the fact that there is zero pathos in this that is not constructed to try and get some tension from a movie that honestly did not need to have any in the first place. Heck this film would have been a little bit better had they had the main character casually stroll to his destination without any of the “complications” that crop up because you are never in doubt that he will get there. Indeed no matter how many creatures may try to kill him, no matter how bad the weather gets, no matter how testing the landscape becomes, you never ever get a sense at any point in time that our young hero may fail no matter how hard the movie tries to say otherwise. Indeed there is a fair amount of room for the film to navigate a future Earth that is quite hazardous whilst also conjuring up a truly peril-filled quest for our young hero and I guess I just feel that some truly hazardous stumbling blocks might have been a bit more satisfying from a pathos perspective for those who chose to engage in this film whilst giving the character of Kitai a lot better in the way of development. That and don’t even get me started on how putting more of a priority on genuine human instinct and ingenuity rather than technology could have done wonders for the narrative as well.

Approached for how it has turned out rather than what we would have liked it to become however, the main objective for this film’s narrative seems to be the showcase of how our main character grows into the man he is supposed to be. Indeed this is a narrative that is seemingly as old as the universe itself going at least back to the times of the “spirit journeys” and other ceremonies meant to help an individual make the transition from youth into adult. Now in all fairness, the movie does try to work in the intriguing dynamic of Kitai not feeling up to snuff to do what is being asked of and we do follow his growth from a pathos perspective throughout the narrative, but once again it mostly comes to nothing seeing as there, again, is no real feeling of peril in the movie and the character’s growth is for all intents and purposes a certainty. Yes Jaden Smith does try to help make the character’s growth feel as organic as possible, but both he, and especially his dad in a genuine co-starring role, have their task really turned into a downright chore courtesy of both a terrible script and having to utilize an odd accent that feels like an odd blend between Wakandian and old-timey London which, when combined with a quite lazy sense of tempo, really falls flat in its efforts to enhance the iconic character dynamic presented here at virtually every given opportunity.

Finally from a technical perspective, it should be noted that although the movie does present a terrific sense of potential, it doesn’t exactly morph into the viewing experience you might want from a film helmed by Shyamalan. Indeed this is a film that is fairly well built in nearly every way whilst also aiming to showcase a very human vibe by trading quick paced action beats for action beats that feel reflective in nature. Yes this film works decently enough, but at the same time it also feels quite one-dimensional and it really doesn’t seem to possess the kind of cinematic magic that made the first three movies helmed by Shyamalan the triumphs that they were with both critics and general movie goers. Indeed he really doesn’t ever seem to give this film any degree of authentic whatsoever be it in how he shapes either the cast of characters or in the narrative of which they are a part. Yes the film does always seem on the cusp of succeeding in showcasing a riveting human drama, the superficial ingredients consistently get in the way and bring the film down along with them. That right there, incidentally, could also best sum up just what is erroneous about this film. That being the fact that every time this film does something good, there’s always one more ingredient to help drag it back into the muck again.  Indeed nearly every scene in the movie falls prey to this in some fashion at least those that occur after the opening seconds that prove to be quite potent before the movie then takes to one of the most critical moments and it is shown piecemeal whilst supported by a dark screen sigh. Ultimately therefore, the best component of the entire film would most definitely have to be the riveting musical accompaniment by James Newton Howard. Indeed not only does it manage to work with the atmosphere and narrative arc in the movie perfectly, but it also does a wonderful job at showcasing a vibe of all the different genres at play in this film in practically every note performed. It’s just a crying shame that the other 98% of this movie can’t do the same.

All in all it really does say a lot about M. Night Shyamalan that after movies like this, he’s still a film helmer who is quite easy to cheer on. I mean this is a man who has shown that he can make a truly great movie, but for some unfathomable reason has not been as great here lately as he was at the beginning of his career with perhaps a couple of exceptions (Split and The Visit) to the contrary. Be that as it may be, I think it is still safe to say that whenever news reaches me that a new film of his is on the horizon, there is still a degree of eager anticipation with a degree of optimism on the side that this upcoming film, whatever it is, will be the film that finally gets him back on the rails so to speak. Unfortunately After Earth was most definitely not the movie to do this. Yes it is a quite capable slice of cinematic pie, but it is ultimately a movie that is overflowing with faults whilst giving us a hint of potential that just isn’t fully realized 98% of this movie’s 100 minutes runtime. On a scale of 1-5 I give After Earth “2013” a solid 2.5 out of 5.