11 June 2013

Flash Review: After Earth

After Earth (2013)
Directed by M. Night Shyamlan. Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Isabelle Fuhrman.

I’m glad Will Smith loves his son Jaden. But instead of trying to give Jaden a movie career to show his love, perhaps he should help the young man cultivate his true talents into a successful vocation. I’m not sure what those talents are—except they aren’t as a charismatic leading man. After Earth fails on many levels, but the hapless young Jaden at the center is its most glaring error.

The film’s story, which Will Smith also developed, is not one of the major problems. Given other circumstances, it could have worked as a fast-paced, streamlined adventure yarn, something you might see in a good YA book. A father and son crash-land on Earth, which was long ago abandoned after a war with aliens. The crash incapacitates the father, and it’s up to the son to cross a stretch of wilderness filled with dangerously evolved animals to reach a rescue beacon. The father remotely guides his son as they work through personal issues (the son failed to get into the Ranger Corps of which his father is the most legendary member), and peril and action ensue among the crazy beasts of hyper-Earth. The science-fiction background is interesting as well, although it won’t stand up to scrutiny: the Rangers have learned to control their fear, which renders them effectively invisible to the “Ursas,” alien bio-weapons that can detect fear emissions. The aliens should have given the Ursas a few more senses—like eyes—to help them track their prey, but if the movie entertains me enough I can go with this set-up.

But director and punch line M. Night Shyamalan has no intention of entertaining. He paces After Earth as if it were Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s maddeningly inactive and slow at all times, as if the movie were drugged on the pain medication that has Will Smith’s character, Cypher Rage (seriously), swooning in a chair while and giving tortured speeches. By the point where Mr. Rage gives his key monologue about how he discovered “fear is a choice,” the movie should have already thrown his son Kitai through unrelenting hell. Yet so far all that Kitai has done is run into some baboons and get a poisonous leech bite. The last thing After Earth needs at this point is to slow down.

The film never get its feet under it and starts sprinting. By the climax, when Kitai faces a loose Ursa (which is visually of no interest), the movie hasn’t a drop of energy left. It’s wasted all its time with flashbacks of Kitai’s childhood trauma and Cypher mumbling while staring at readouts.

I can pummel Shyamalan for much of this, but even with a director able to pace the story, there is still the Smith2 failure: Will mistakeningly believing viewers want to watch him as an emotionless shell who spends most of the movie literally on pain medication, and Jaden allowing his dad to pit him against the worst foe possible… a bored audience.