So I went to see After Earth tonight and I walked out of the theater going through what I had just seen in my head, and I kept thinking that it’s the old “good news/bad news” routine. The good news is that it’s not as bad as I was led to believe. The bad news is, but for some simple questionable choices, it could’ve been a really good film. And when the flaws are so obvious, making one wonder, “why didn’t they notice that,” it’s disappointing. I will admit that being an African-American father, I went to support this movie despite my misgivings because I don’t recall ever before seeing a film recently depicting a black father and son in a relationship, let alone a sci-fi film. Coincidentally, the last one that comes to mind is Pursuit Of Happyness, also starring the Smith duo in what I thought was a far superior film to this one.
But now here’s where the questionable choices nearly derail the film (most are saying there’s no “nearly” about it). Will Smith’s character (Cypher Raige, no subtlety there), is estranged from his son, Kitai (Jaden) and I suppose that Will made the choice to depict this somewhat fractured relationship by constantly scowling throughout the entire movie. At the beginning of the film, we’re placed right in the mise-en-scene, and in only the first few scenes (which also outline the details of why humans have left Earth and settled on Nova Prime), we learn about the distance between father and son. And I found myself thinking, um, Cypher’s got issues.
We never really learn why Cypher is such a stick in the mud. We ARE given a lot of possibilties as to why. Is it because he is a “ghost,” which means he can biologically suppress any notion of fear? And does this ability mean he has to remain a Spock-like figure, always in control of his emotions? Is it because he faults his son for not coming to his sister’s aid in a time of need? Is it because Cypher is the baddest of the badass Rangers and his own son washed out of the program? These are the only explanations I can come up with, but lacking any kind of exposition or back story, they fall flat, particularly given that, prior to a family tragedy, Cypher is SO stoic, he has to be begged into helping blow out his daughter’s birthday candles. To be fair, we’re given some exposition in flashback scenes involving the death of Kitai’s older sister, played by the stunning (and legal!) Zoe Kravitz. But again, here’s the problem; it’s not clear that the flashback events are the catalyst for Cypher’s aloofness. I personally think, from the beginning, it was a mistake to relegate a potentially pivotal moment in the Raige family past to lightweight flashbacks, as opposed to full scenes. These scenes, as well as Cypher’s battle scenes, deserved to have been more fleshed out. While these flashbacks clearly demonstrate why Kitai carries a burden of guilt and fear, they do little more than to provide the audience with the notion that the Ursas, blind beasts that hunt prey (including humans) by sensing fear, are vicious. It may have helped to have filmed just one scene where Cypher comports himself as a family man, but then by seeing Cypher’s immediate reaction to the death of his daughter (which we don’t), he then becomes the aloof character he is. We see his immediate disappointment that his son failed to become a Ranger, but he’s already established as a stern, emotionless…well, cipher, at this point. Yes, he’s a die hard military man, but that doesn’t mean his character can’t have multiple layers, does it? And this is how Smith plays it throughout the entire movie. When you contrast him with the beautiful charismatic Sophie Okonedo, who plays his wife, it makes you wonder why she hooked up with this grumpy second rate Morpheus in the first place.
Jaden, on the other hand, did not do nearly as bad an acting job as I was expecting. Yes, he tended to overplay the fear, to the point where the change in his character at the very end is pretty much unbelievable and unwarranted. But for the most part, I bought was he was doing onscreen. The biggest problem I had with his character was that, perhaps because I didn’t feel like I had any context for Cypher’s apparent disdain for him, perhaps because the story starts with father and son already in a dysfunctional state, I didn’t feel the heart tugs I felt like I should have while he’s trekking through the dangerous jungle. Because I never saw Cypher EVER express any loving emotion to his son, I didn’t have any emotional reaction to seeing the son risk his life for his father. The father/son dynamic throughout the first two acts was lost on me. It could’ve just as easily been an estranged buddy or subordinate of Cypher’s trekking through the woods. It’s just a shame the filmmakers spent so much time on the front end with a bunch of convoluted exposition about why humans left Earth, a nonexistent subplot about a war with an alien race who use the Ursas to do their fighting…all the time spent on that could’ve been better spent, once again, on showing the Raige family in better times, with a well-adjusted father and son, whose relationship undergoes a transformation to the dysfunctional one we see at the beginning of the movie. That being the case, I think Kitai’s struggles on the trek would more effectively have mirrored his struggle to earn back the respect of his father.
Other issues I had were relatively minor: it’s ridiculous that a beacon that can travel through wormholes across the galaxy can’t penetrate ionic interference. The production design was a head-scratcher. None of the human infrastructure on Nova Prime looked like anything that would’ve been designed by humans. The living areas, the spaceship, the corridors within the ship all looked like they were being repurposed by humans from a quasi-H.R. Giger type of alien culture. It just doesn’t make sense that a spaceship would have a design like that, with such a long tail. Of course it would break off, haven’t their engineers heard of weak design links? And some critics are panning the film for references to Scientology. I can’t really speak to that, but it sure sounded like some quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo to me. I get it all about fear not being real, but Will Smith’s monotonous intonation comes off as him headlining one of those weird religious cult camps in some compound (it’s always a compound) in the middle of nowhere…where no one can hear you scream. And I’m sorry, the shot with Jaden kneeling with the volcano perfectly framed in the background looked like some L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics book cover concept to me.
Having said all this, I want to repeat that the movie is not as bad as everyone is saying. Could the negativity be due to some subtle racism (again, a black father and son starring in a summer sci-fi movie directed by a person of Indian heritage)? Perception that Will Smith is just providing his son a $140 million sandbox to play in as he tries to thrust him into stardom? That Will Smith has little to do in the movie and all the heavy lifting is done by Jaden? Or could it be that some legitimately didn’t buy into the flaws of the film? As I said at the beginning, the bad news is it’s not that great a movie overall. Maybe it’s because M. Night Shyamalan has become a whipping boy and the public wrote the movie off simply because his name was on it. There could be some merit to that, because Shyamlan’s style may not have been suited for a big budget summer sci-fi film. For me, this was made clear in an INTERMINABLE scene where the dour Cypher is describing in detail the moment when he realized he could “ghost.” He goes on and on, his voice a monotone, the camera never wavering; I thought to myself, if ever I needed a flashback, IT’S RIGHT HERE! This technique may have worked in a purely character-based film, such as when Cole describes to his mom how he sees dead people in The Sixth Sense, but not in a summer sci-fi movie starring Will Smith. But I’m shedding the negativity. The film works to a certain degree in terms of suspense (I was genuinely tense at certain moments; there are specific setups that are nerve-wracking, such as a scene involving a leech) and there are scenes that are genuinely moving, such as the moment Kitai decides to stand up to his father before plunging off a cliff (although calling his father a coward was a bit much, a strange bit of writing). The ending in particular, while corny and telegraphed, is made for a father and son.
So maybe because it wasn’t horrible, because despite all I’ve said, I was able to enjoy the movie to a certain degree. And maybe I went so deep into criticism here because I wanted it to be a better movie. I just hope that Jaden gets another shot at a film that will do better business. And it goes without saying I hope history won’t record the summer of 2013 as the year where Will Smith’s star first started to plummet. 2.5/5 reels
1 reel=poor, 2=fair, 3=good, 4=great, 5=classic (every scene is on point)