RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 16: M Night Shyalaman’s ”After Earth” (2013)


The Players…

Jaden and Will Smith…that’s…that’s about it.

The Story…

A thousand years in the future, Earth has been abandoned, its populace fleeing environmental degradation. Humanity sets up shop elsewhere, its home world forbidden and eventually all but forgotten. However because of a disastrous interstellar voyage, one General Cypher Raige and his young son, Kitai, are forced to crash-land on the long-abandoned, desolate Earth. Now alone and with his father gravely injured, Kitai must set out to find a rescue beacon that hopefully will save them from their cradle’s hostile, if not vengeful ecosystem.

The Rant…

Another M Night Shyalaman movie?

Yes, another M Night Shyalaman movie. He is of ill repute lately, and his latest effort is no different in reflection. His hottest feature (this one) already has a notorious reputation for being a cataclysmic stink bomb at the multiplex. A failed summer blockbuster if there ever was one. Critics lacerated it. It grossed domestically only a fraction of its budgetary costs (but to be fair, it did recoup a lot overseas). It starred the once unimpeachable Will Smith, king of the summer blockbuster for over a decade, whose rep has now been inextricably damaged. Oh, by the way, it also co-stars his kid! Boo! Hiss! Piss on the screen!

Christ, the masses are a capricious bunch, aren’t we? It’s just a damned movie, after all…

So it came to pass, Planet Earth was abandoned a millennium ago, due to either outstripping her natural resources, climate change, war or the generally infantile behavior of people who are more beholding to flags rather than tolerance. The surviving human race, thanks to the elite Ranger Corps, scooped up its remaining culture and found haven on planet Nova Prime, about a jillion light-years away from the cradle.

Like a hunk of cheese over and done at the back of the fridge, Mother Earth has been forgotten, idlewild, the stuff of legend and totally quarantined from any human who may unfortunately get snagged into her gravity well. She’s changed, this bitch of a planet, evolving into a farscape beyond the conditions she was left to roil in centuries ago, sprouting angry flora with irate fauna to boot. In sum: literal terra incognita.

Enter our protag Kitai (Jaden Smith), a bright, ambitious kid, desperate to follow in and perhaps outstretch the footsteps of his esteemed dad, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) as an elite Ranger. You see, Papa Raige mastered, if not founded the martial art of “ghosting.” It goes as follows: a local hostile alien race didn’t cotton well to having human invaders set up camp on one of their territorial planets. In return, they threw out a welcome mat of genetically engineered monsters dubbed Ursa—totally blind, very stupid and utterly ferocious designed to plainly chew out the human vermin. Gen. Raige figured out how to thwart this menace. Seeing that the Ursa couldn’t, well, see and operated solely on tracking human pheromones alone, all one needed to due was purge any and all vestiges of fear from their body chemistry. Raige was soldier prime, capable of simply walking up to one of these blind, stupid idiot fiends and slaying them with a swift slash of a cutlass. In short, he scorched f*cking earth.

Needless to say, Kitai idolizes—and naturally fears—his indomitable father. He enlisted in the Ranger Corps and outdoes all his peers in every way…save two. First, modesty, and; second, in his father’s eyes. It sucks having to live in your dad’s shadow, especially when it has a particularly long cloak.

But why be such a shrinking violet from such an esteemed family? Is there more to Kitai’s motivations than to outdo an overbearing father with a legacy ridiculously impossible to shoulder? Is it a need to prove his worth as a Ranger? Or is there a certain something else that drives Kitai?

At mom’s behest after the General announces his plans to retire, it’s a good time to take his estranged son along on a road trip. Things start out as business as usual, but (and don’t it always turn out this way) it ends up all widdershins as a celestial U-turn gets thrown at our hero’s’ starship resulting in a crash landing back into Mother Earth’s arms. And for this rude return engagement, she gets very, very pissed.

Surviving Kitai and crippled (but still digitally attached) Cypher have more or less three days to retrieve the rescue beacon to alert the Corps of their whereabouts before their elder Grandma Planet gets sick of their asses and rips them to pieces.

And the clock starts…now!

First mistake: perceiving After Earth as is a sci-fi film.

Second mistake: modestly intelligent fans still address the genre as “sci-fi.” We don’t get no tornadoes made of sharks here in science fiction town. Really. No. I always preferred the genre designated as what writer Harlan Ellison termed “speculative fiction.” Stuff than could only exist in your imagination alone until it was time to be borne. Contemporary societal tropes shrouded with the allegory of the fantastic. That kinda stuff. There is, nowadays, very little “science” in science fiction. I doubt since the heady days of Jules Verne there has been much overt science in science-fiction at all, and that was over a century ago. Again, no. In the simpler terms of Ellison: If you like peanuts, you’ll love Sci-Fi!

Third mistake: perceiving this was meant to be a summer movie. After watching Earth, it has the aroma of a very late fall release, shrouded in falling leaves and freed from the farts and darts that we’ve all grown accustomed and/or numbed to during the summer popcorn releases. After Earth has little popcorn going for it. Also, it’s the first true leap Night has made into the spec-fic genre.

And that, curiously enough, is a good thing.

This movie is a film about the dynamics between a father and his son. Granted, it’s 1,000 years into the future, but I guess it’s safe to assume that such relations haven’t evolved too much from present times. I guess the only real diff is the current applications of clubs and flint. Anyway, families are alike all over.

I, like many ‘Mericans, enjoy the blockbusters Will Smith has hosted. Men In Black, Independence Day, Bad Boys, you get the idea. As of late, Will has been either dodging the summer spotlight or…oh, let’s face it. He wants to choose his own roles. Hell, he’s made his bones. Us duffers from Gen X remember him as either “The Fresh Prince Of Bell Air” or of one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and…you (might) get the idea.

Here’s this idea: Will Smith since entering cinema has always been a reliable source of charisma, audacity, and humor we’ve come to expect from a  21st Century film icon. Heretofore is a pleasant way to say you’ve been typecast. Like Leonard Nimoy (who directed a fair amount of reputable movies non-Trek related in the 80’s) as Mr. Spock, Smith is trying to shed his skin. And at the same time, striving to have his cake and…well, you know the drill Agent K (look here please)…huh?

Now the Fresh Prince has a son. And here’s the f*cked up thing about it: he’s a more interesting actor than his dad. You know, the multi-millionaire cinema icon dad former fresh prince dad. A well-adjusted 16-year old (at the time of this screed) son whose following in his dad’s footsteps. And a better, more convincing actor than his well-heeled dad has become.

You get it: I think Jaden Smith is a more engaging actor than Pops. Wanna know why? Earnestness. Every Will Smith movie stinks of bravado. Like the coffee pot that has set on the burner way too long into the morning and ignites a redolent smell of TP that has overspent its taint? Poor Will has had to live up to iconic status that, frankly, I don’t think he wanted in the first place. I’d like to imagine that the guy just wanted to try acting (and let’s facts. Every time Will tries to escape the predictable dumb comedy trope he inadvertently makes a profit. Must be stultifying).

Young Jaden, unhampered by typecasting, has carved out a much more eclectic niche than his rich-beyond-compare dad. I’ve seen the films tucked under Jaden’s belt. The remake of The Karate Kid was pretty good. The Pursuit of Happyness wasn’t bad (it co-starred his dad too.) And you wanna known what? There’s a reason why I credited the prime cast as I did (well, such as it was. There were less than at least eight humans I saw. And none of them Night. Looks like he saw my corollary). Jaden carried the film. And very well I might add. I found he conveyed appropriate emotion scene for scene better than his big-ticket dad (whom I’ve never seen act so damned stern before. The usual Big Willie charisma has all but vanished here).

As for the technical flourishes that are always evident in Night’s movies, After Earth was not for wanting. The sets and locations were nothing less than beautiful. The cinematography was exceptional. The film had an excellent score, courtesy of James Newton Howard (he makes the music to all of Night’s movies). And again CGI was used tastefully, not with splash and dash to make a lot of noise. On the contrary, After Earth is never a loud movie. It’s restrained and patient. It takes its time. This is probably why it failed as a summer movie. Too reserved. Or whatever expectations audiences have of Night’s movies, this failed too. This was the most linear, straight-forward tale Night has spun yet. Based in the traditional coming-of-age story and the dynamic of father/son bonding, Night cranked out a very simple, very affecting movie. I think toning down his alleged filmmaking monomania has done Night some good here.

Another element that is always present in Night’s movies and is not lost here is the idea of family. Every film the man has made revolves around the ties that bind, especially in Unbreakable and Signs. After Earth is no exception, and has been distilled down to the very basic element of family: parent and child, one caring for the other. It’s a simple dynamic, but an effective one, and I believe that if we didn’t have the prime cast consist of actual real-life father and son, the movie would not have worked. Most claim the film already didn’t work. Then again, it was summertime, people have expectations and the fact it was a Shyalaman film, there were also preconceived notions about what they were getting into. I guess this movie could remind us all of the immortal words of Flava Flav: don’t believe the hype.

To wrap it up, I have become slowly but surely aware of what I have been smearing all and up down Facebook between and betwixt my “friends” and what I regard as my local family of fleshoids (I enjoy Futurama), that I have since become somewhat of a fixture here. When I openly announced that I was gonna watch After Earth, the groans and screams were nothing less than satanically shrill. Anyways and simply put, audience screaming doesn’t make for a proper critique, especially if it’s the wrong time of year.

Merry Humbug, ya bastards. 😉

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? When I informed my co-workers that I was planning on reviewing this movie, they all screamed at me and catcalled and questioned my sexual orientation. I don’t think any of the goofballs had actually seen the damned thing. I do dare claim, rent it. The flick has a quiet grace, some patience and an understandably natural chemistry between the two leads. After Earth is not a sci-fi movie. It is of speculative fiction. If you know the difference, you can see the film with the proper vision, and ignore the critics. And so oddly enough, ignore me.

Stray Observations…

  • “Massive expansion is one in a million.” Ah, science. It’s not just for 7th graders anymore.
  • Again, the location scout did a brilliant job. Sometimes it’s not always about the CGI.
  • “That sucked.” “That is correct.”
  • I gotta admit, the birthday cake bit made me chuckle. Another hint of Night’s affinity for family dynamics.
  • “Kitai, you’ve got incoming.” Understatement defined.

Next Installment…

It’s Jeff Daniels pitted against Laura Linney as The Squid And The Whale do battle.

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