News, Views, and Reviews
Father and son duo, Will and Jaden Smith, star in After Earth; a visually impressive, yet simple sci-fi thriller about facing and overcoming fear. Director M. Night Shyamalan returns to his roots, so to speak, by turning away from epic spectacle and focusing on a small cast of characters. This may be a fantastic, science fiction produced situation, but the focus is definitely on character and the basic themes of survival and facing fears. The dialogue is sparse, and the back-story conflict of humans in general and the main father and son characters are told mostly in flashbacks. As seen in the trailers, this is mostly a story about Jaden Smith’s character running through the jungle being chased by wild animals. It’s simple, but effective.
Story: Set 1,000 years in the future, humans have fled a toxic Earth and settled a new planet called Nova Prime. Here, they ran into a group of very large, aggressive, hostile aliens that almost killed humanity off. Virtually blind, these creatures are able to “sense” humans by detecting the pheromones released from fear. The tables were turned, then, when a few of Earth’s protectors, called “Rangers”, realized they could become undetected by the creatures if they could maintain a state of fearlessness. Called “ghosting”, these Rangers can become invisible to the monsters simply by not being afraid of them. In time, the Rangers were able to defeat the creatures and save humanity.
Characterization: Will Smith plays legendary Ranger General Cypher Raige: a hero to humanity, and an estranged father to his 13 year old son, Kitai Raige. Jaden Smith plays that son, Kitai, who wants to become a Ranger, but due to his inability to become fearless, fails his entry exam. General Raige’s wife Faia, played by Sophie Okonedo, talks him into giving his son another chance by taking him to a special training base on another planet. Unfortunately, they run into trouble mid-flight, and end up crashing on a now unfamiliar Earth. With General Raige injured and dying in the cockpit, their only hope for survival is for Kitai to brave 100 kilometers of jungle terrain, alone, and find the signal beacon stored in the separated rear portion of their ship. After this scenario is set up, the rest of the movie is mostly carried by Will and Jaden Smith. There are a few flashbacks, and some surreal hallucinations, that revolve around some traumatic event between Kitai and his older sister Senshi, played by Zoe Kravitz, but other than that, this is Jaden Smith’s show. For the most part, Jaden shows some impressive acting ability; he’s capable of showing a range of emotions, often with little dialogue. In some ways, I was reminded of how Suraj Sharma, a complete newcomer to movies, carried the movie The Life of Pi, also with little dialogue. After Earth, however, is still a science fiction tale, and fancy technology enables Will and Jaden to communicate with each other, which keeps Jaden from being completely isolated. This isn’t a total cop out, as it adds a layer of difficulty to Jaden’s situation, who not only has to survive the jungle, he has to prove himself to his father. Imagine doing something that is already really, really hard, and doing it while someone is constantly looking over your shoulder, criticizing your every move.
I don’t know what kind of relationship Will and Jaden have in real life, but I think the “estranged father” character felt too forced to me. If anything, this is the main weakness of After Earth, as it’s crucial to the story and themes of the movie, to believe that General Raige is, for the lack of a better word, a jerk. Will Smith is just too likable, and his attempts at being this stern and unfair General character somehow missed the mark. Jaden, then, has to compensate with some fantastic emotional scenes, played against someone that’s unfortunately too likable to really resonate. This isn’t to say that it was a failure as I still teared up a few times, I just think there could have been even more emotional impact if they sold the General character a little better.
Visualization: The unique art style is easily one of the things I really liked about After Earth. The architecture on Nova Prime, the ship that crashes on Earth, even the outfits have an organic, almost primitive appearance. Kitai’s suit looks like a sort of leather armor, which is fitting for his jungle survival tale, but it has just enough techno-gizmo-style to remind us that this is still a sci-fi movie. This is expressed in his signature weapon, a baton that can extend a variety of differently shaped blades from both ends. It’s futuristic, because the blades are made up of some sort of morphing material that can extend beyond the size of the baton itself, and even take on some elaborate shapes. But it’s primitive because, well, it’s just a melee weapon. This wouldn’t be much of a harrowing tale of survival on an “unfamiliar and hostile Earth” if Kitai just ran around with a lethal laser gun or something. Even the space ship seemed like strange fabrics wrapped around bone-like structures, hardly something capable of faster-than-light-speed travel.
The sci-fi geek in me wishes this cool art style would have extended to Earth itself. Instead, Kitai’s struggle for survival in the jungle looks like, well, a jungle, with only slightly larger and more aggressive animals as the main threats. It’s still threatening – it’s just not very fantastic. Still, sometimes “less is more” and we’re able to focus primarily on Kitai’s quest and his character development. I think this is Shyamalan’s intent, as it was in his movie “Signs” which featured a small group of characters dealing with an alien invasion – that barely even showed that alien invasion. Like that movie, After Earth is really a character study, which details the father-son dynamic and the themes of dealing with our fears rather than focusing on a lot of fancy sci-fi settings and special effects.
Sound: Like the art style, the sound definitely adhered to a “less is more” attitude, featuring simple piano and violin pieces throughout the film. In my other reviews, I tend to critique movies based on including – or not including – memorable themes and having spectacular sound tracks. Well, I might have to give an exception to After Earth. It’s possible that, if After Earth WAS given an epic soundtrack, it might have made the movie feel like a heroic adventure story, and I don’t think that would have fit the style. Forgive the unintentional pun, but I think After Earth is supposed to be more “down to earth” than that. This isn’t a swashbuckling hero, or a super-soldier blasting his way through enemy lines, this is just a young boy stranded in the jungle with a very condescending father pushing him to second guess himself instead of succeed. There is no “good guy” or “bad guy” or “hero’s theme” or “villain’s march” to represent them. And in this case, I guess that works. My only complaint with the sound – and I suppose this extends to the characterization category – is that the characters speak with a weird accent that is sometimes distracting. Not only that, but General Raige, I suppose in an effort to make him seem more menacing, speaks in an odd tone, as if they applied some sort of special effect to Will Smith’s voice. It’s not terrible, it’s just a little distracting.
Conclusion: After Earth is a different sort of science fiction thriller. It is definitely more character driven, with a small cast of characters and emphasis on those characters rather than flashy special effects or a spectacular music score. The art style still stands out, mostly because of its uniqueness, and serves as a great compliment to the clash of futuristic and primitive situations. I’m a little disappointed that Will Smith’s character wasn’t “mean” enough, but I’m impressed with Jaden’s performance nonetheless. I should also point out that, although this is a great “coming of age” character driven story, starring a young actor, After Earth might be a little too scary or intense for younger viewers.Clocking in at 100 minutes, it’s also a fairly short movie. So, I can recommend it as a short but sweet, simple but satisfying, sci-fi story.
After Earth hit theaters May 31st, runs 100 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.