Sunday, 16 June 2013

Film Review: After Earth

From director M. Night Shyamalan, After Earth is a futuristic science-fiction adventure that stars Will and Jaden Smith. Set 1000 years in our future, the father-son duo crash land on a dangerous and hostile planet where they are no longer the apex predator. With danger around every corner, the duo must survive against the hordes of vicious animals that have evolved to kill humans and send out a distress beacon. For they are stranded; stranded, on Earth.

With a set-up as tantalising as that, it was hard to ignore the promotional material for After Earth. With a big star like Will Smith front and centre, I was hoping for an entertaining, yet dramatic and exciting, sci-fi epic with heart; something like Men in Black mixed with Oblivion and Star Trek. The trailers promised suspense and feeling as Jaden Smith's young and reckless cadet was mercilessly hunted by all kinds of vicious futuristic beasties. The premise promised a summer blockbuster that was wholly original; not a sequel, prequel, spin-off or reboot.

Jaden Smith gets back to nature
And then the reviews started creeping in. 1 star here. A 'two thumbs down' there. 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. Articles likening After Earth to Wild Wild West or Battlefield Earth. So is After Earth as bad as most reviewers would have you believe? I didn't think so. Does it make the most of its exciting premise? Again, no.

As it turns out, After Earth is another fairly disappointing effort from director M. Night Shyamalan. After pissing all over a whole fanbase with his widely panned film adaptation of the Last Airbender, Shyamalan has yet again squandered an opportunity to make something truly special.

Like I said, the initial premise for After Earth is simply mouthwatering. It promises action, adventure and emotion; key elements for any successful science-fiction film. And whilst some elements are executed well, others are left to crash and burn much like the Smith family's spaceship.

Let's start with them; the Smith family. First off, Jaden Smith. Jaden gives it his best effort to carry the film on his still young shoulders. At only 14, Jaden is still young and finding his feet as an actor. He doesn't carry the confidence of his father and comes across as sulky (or at least his character does), but he doesn't shame the family name with his performance.

For the majority of the film, he is left to converse with thin air, talking to his father through a Mass Effect style omni-tool device which means that the two rarely talk face-to-face. This is a shame because the whole point of the film is that the two characters need to develop their relationship and grow to love one another. Kind of hard to do that when your too busy walking 100 kilometres in the opposite direction of your father.

As for Will Smith, his character is one the films main drawbacks. A stoic and cold war hero, General Cypher is wounded when their ship crash lands, forcing him to send his son out into the wilderness alone. For the rest of the film, Cypher is confined to the cockpit of the crashed ship, issuing orders to Kitai through a radio and fighting to stay conscious.

Will Smith but not as you know him. In a bad way.
Yep, you read that right. Will Smith, one of the funniest and most likeable actors you can think of, is left to sulk and bark orders in a chair for over an hour of this film. He doesn't move. He sits there, wincing and bleeding. He doesn't even crack wise. He is made to portray a character devoid of emotion, lacking in any sense of humour and being generally dull. The result is a character who is not just unlikeable, but boring. He doesn't even say "dayum" or "shiznit" with a script that is not funny intentionally (but sometimes is).

As for the action, there are a whole host of vicious nasties that occupy the wilderness Jaden must traverse. Baboons, lions, leeches; the action sequences don't disappoint when they crop up and they are tense and surprisingly vicious. One sequence in which Jaden must take on a grotesque snarling alien (called a Ursa, more on those later) particularly made me flinch. I also liked the visuals of the film. The CGI isn't half bad and the dystopic landscapes of a futuristic Earth that has been reclaimed by nature were great.

However, with the one plot strand driving the whole plot, the pacing is very stretched out. At two hours long (and a with a fairly rushed finale) it just felt oddly paced to me. I thought that the film needed more to it, more depth added in. It needed to build upon its great premise and add more elements too it. As it stands, the end result felt too much like a first draft that still needed work done on it.

Also, I thought that the opening exposition piece that gives information of the universe within which the film is set was too rushed. If you wan't to immerse your audience in your movie, don't skate over the essential narrative points that will define the outcome of the film in a short, fast-edited montage. Take it slow, construct the world of the film; this is especially important in science-fiction films.

Some elements just felt too generic; the 'terrifying' alien that hunted Jaden throughout the duration of the film was built up as being this ultimate predator that could sniff the scent of your fear. What we actually saw was a big, grey, gooey spidery thing that snarled and stomped its way across screen. Hardly a cunning and intelligent predator.

At the end of the day, you know a film has lost its way somewhere along the line when you walk out and spend the next hour discussing how the film could have "done X different or changed Y". The Smith duo do a fair job at carrying this two-man show that is littered with a clunky script and thinly spread plot. There are some redeemable features here (the natural vistas), but it feels underwhelming when you consider how much more could have been made of the fantastic core premise.

I give After Earth: 3/10

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