Review: Will and Jaden Smith explore father-son dynamics against a science-fiction adventure backdrop in 'After Earth'
"After Earth" is, all things considered, a fairly small-scale story, and the conscious decision to create such a large world and then focus on two characters almost exclusively feels at first like a mistake. Ultimately, though, the film reveals that its true intent is to create a boy's adventure movie that externalizes the basic stresses and fears of parenthood, and its modest goals turn out to be an asset. This may not be the biggest bang for the buck this summer, but it's lovely to see something that is sincere, thematically focused, and that ultimately works in a way I didn't expect.
M. Night Shyamalan has entered the phase of his career where there is a certain amount of baggage that prevents a percentage of the audience (and the film press) from even remotely approaching a new film by him with an open mind. It's been fascinating to watch the fall from newly-annointed genius in 1999 to openly-reviled punchline in 2013. While he courted a certain amount of that with his Newsweek cover story and his self-commissioned immolation-in-book-form "The Man Who Hears Voices" and his ludicrous "documentary" about the making of "The Village," it is still discouraging to watch people spend weeks warming up for a new film of his by practicing their snark and trotting out their complaints about his prior work. At this point, Sony barely even acknowledged him in the marketing for this film, a clear indication that they were aware of the issue, and even so, I see people piling on already, and I'm baffled.
Maybe it's the father-son act of Will and Jaden Smith that also has some people cracking their knuckles and sharpening their knives. Keep in mind, I'm not talking about people who have seen the film and didn't like it, but the ramp up over the last few weeks where I've seen people who have absolutely not seen the film railing on it anyway. Whatever the case, it feels unfair to me. "After Earth" is very straightforward, and there is a sincerity to it that is easily mocked but also admirable in an age where almost everything has a sort of winking post-modern stance. There are certainly choices here that baffle me, like naming a character "Cypher Raige" or some of the dialogue that sounds like it comes out of a self-empowerment seminar, but for the most part, I think this is a strong example of a certain type of film that rarely gets made these days.
I've noticed that for the most part, there are films that are blatantly aimed at children and the "family" audience, and there are films that are aimed at grown-ups that are okay for kids to see as well, but there are very few films made that seem aimed at a young teen audience specifically. Now that there's this "young adult" category, which feels to me like they're essentially making grown-up films that are aged down slightly and angsted up enormously, it feels like they're serving this audience but on a superficial level. In the '80s, a film like "Young Sherlock Holmes" or "Explorers" or even "The Goonies" wasn't given a label like "young adult" because no such thing existed. Instead, they were just films that happened to have young protagonists facing high concept situations, and "After Earth" seems like a movie that would be beloved by a generation of kids if it had come out between 1983 and 1989.
The things I liked about the film far outweigh the issues I had with it. The film deals with a big giant slice of history fairly quickly at the start of the film, explaining that when humans were forced to abandon Earth because it had become inhospitable, they took to the stars in search of another place that could support life. They found a home eventually, only to find themselves under attack from aliens who design a special creature that is bred only to kill humans. Blind by design, the creatures use the pheromones generated by fear to track their prey, and the reason Cypher Raige is revered as a hero is because he was the first person to master his own fear enough to be able to move as if invisible among the creatures, allowing him to kill them. His example led to an entire military discipline, and as the film opens, we see that his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is unable to master all of the skills of a Ranger, leading to his failure to graduate just as his father returns from a mission.
Brief tangent: Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz play Will's wife and daughter in the film, and they look so much like mother and daughter for real that I am hereby accusing somebody of real life key party rock star shenanigans. I'm not sure who, but It's the only explanation.
Cypher agrees to take Kitai with him on a fairly simple transport trip, and things go horribly wrong. There's a crash. There's a clearly defined goal, something they need in order to survive, and there's a test, and that's pretty much it. The single most important thing you should know up front if you are harboring some ill will towards Shyamalan is that there's no twist in the film. There's no big reveal or paradigm shift, no dramatic last minute reversals. There is a long tradition of these sorts of science fiction films having big twists, so it wouldn't have been out of character, but that's just not the movie they made.
For the most part, this is a character drama wrapped in big action set pieces. When they crash, Cypher is injured in such a way that he's out. He's just not going to be able to do anything. It's not about how much he wants it or what he's willing to risk. He's immobilized completely, and it's getting worse the longer he's like this. He can communicate with Kitai while he travels several miles to the torn-off tail section of their space ship in order to retrieve and activate an emergency beacon. There's nothing more narratively complicated than that. The thing they were transporting turns out to be one of the beasts that can smell your fear, and it ends up stalking Kitai for a chunk of the movie, but they set that up early. That's the whole reason the creature's in the movie, or that they were created in the first place. This is all about a young man reaching the point where he's not afraid of the world's challenges, and his father's experience watching his son struggle, hoping that the things he's taught him are enough to keep him alive.
One sequence in particular struck me as a great example of theme-as-action, when the communication link between them goes down at an especially awkward moment, and while Cypher can see what's happening, Kitai can't hear him, and the father is forced to just observe and to hope that his son will make the right choices, do the right things. The film is structured more like "The Karate Kid" than it is like any twisty-turny precursor like "Planet Of The Apes" or episodes of "The Twilight Zone." Don't expect some sucker punch that has to do with Earth. The first third of this film almost feels like the closing credits of "The Other Guys," where the subtext is laid out so starkly that it no longer qualifies as subtext. "Earth is going to shake us off like fleas, and when it does, Earth will be fine." I've long believed this, and instead of trying to use the setting to trick the audience in some way, it feels like it was done to show that wherever we go in the universe, we're going to deal with these same basic human things. Family. Expectations. Fear. Pride. And once we go, the Earth will go on and rebuild and adapt. I think there are opportunities set up here that aren't all fully explored, and that's sort of frustrating, but also understandable. The story being told here is not about the sci-fi world. The story would work exactly the same, emotionally speaking, if it was set on Earth and the thing they're transporting is a bear or a lion that has killed someone. That's not to say the science fiction elements are just wallpaper. They're not. It's just that they aren't explored after they're established, and there's a lot suggested here about what sort of stories could also be told.
Technically, there are things I really like and some scenes where it feels like they farmed a particular element out to a house that just couldn't get it right. It's uneven in terms of effects work, with the big stuff all pretty much handled well. It's smaller things like some composites or some vistas that don't quite come together. Shyamalan has a pretty solid eye for composition, and here, I like the way he finds a balance between matter-of-fact reality and science-fiction wonder in his approach to the world. I think the film's generally well-staged and well-shot, especially considering one of the main characters spends a good percentage of his screen time trapped in the same spot. Jaden is not a guy you go to at this stage in his performing career if you want a whole rainbow of attitudes and characters. What I find interesting about him is how clenched he seems onscreen in both "Karate Kid" and this. He's this snarl of nerves and tensions, gradually finding a way to assert his own voice and personality, and in both films, he builds towards a key transformative moment in which he proves himself capable and formidable. I'm not sure if the way things pay off here came from screenwriter Gary Whitta, M. Night Shayamalan, or from Smith himself, but whoever it was, they paid close attention to the audience's reactions in a theater to "The Karate Kid,' and they reach for a similar response here.
The film may be too scary for younger viewers, which makes sense thematically. The alien beasts that Kitai is forced to face on his adventure are meant to be a threat, and the key memory that Kitai keeps returning to over the course of the film is supposed to be enough to break him if he lets it. I ultimately decided against taking my own kids at seven and five, and I'd say anyone with kids under ten should take a look at the film first to know if you think your own kids will be okay with this level of intensity.
One thing that I find interesting about some of this year's science fiction films is how clearly they reflect the religious and philosophical views of key creative players. I try not to carry a lot of people's personal lives into a theater with me, but looking at both "Oblivion" and this film, I can see how someone who is interested in Scientology would be drawn to the material. Both films deal with the idea of personal evolution and overcoming our natural programming in order to move on to a higher level. Having said that, I don't think either of these films are simply excuses to promote someone's religion, and I'll be curious to see if the people attacking this for that reason bring that same focus to "Ender's Game" and its none-too-subtle parallels to Mormonism. My guess is that, like Shyamalan and the father-son Smith pairing, it's an irresistible target, which would explain the almost unseemly glee that some people seem to be taking in trashing the film.
In the end, I think "After Earth" is a modest pleasure, but our media landscape now demands that we either destroy a film in a review or we have to canonize it. Enjoying a film and having a complex reaction to its merits and its flaws is evidently no longer allowed. All I know is that the very direct adventure story worked for me, and I think the film offers some very knowing examples of the way both parents and children have to adjust their thinking over the course of their relationship, wrapped up in a visually dynamic world that simply makes the stakes feel more urgent and that allow a fresh way into what are ultimately very universal ideas.
"After Earth" opens tomorrow.