17/06/13 19:45 Filed in: Movie Review
One of the problems with Rottentomatoes is that it's become the lazy man's way of deciding whether to wait for the video release or to shell out the cash for the big screen experience. But sometimes its simple algorithm of consensus is ultimately wrong. If you’re going to After Earth to see a whole lot of whizz bang special effects you will be very disappointed. That’s not at all what this story is about. This is a coming of age story about a young man having to overcome fear. Clearly the studios wanted an Avatar-esque, big summer event film but if they actually read the script they would have easily seen that After Earth even doesn’t pretend to be that. Yes, in the trailer we see a spaceship exploding and crash-landing on a future version of Earth. Yes, it’s starring action hero Will Smith. Yes, there are some cool looking creatures but that’s it. The truth is that M. Knight Shyamalan created a heartfelt story about a stoic father’s relationship with his strong-willed but frightened son. This is a great family film because there’s no gore, nudity, profanity or cheap thrills. It actually carries a spiritual theme about living in the present, making your own choices and not being overcome by your own perceived fears. The problem is that people want to see Will Smith play his Men In Black role and in After Earth he plays an injured soldier named Cypher who only cracks a single joke in the entire film.
In truth the film is more akin to The Pursuit of Happyness…in space. The strength of the narrative is that Cypher doesn’t overshadow the story of his son, Kitai. Despite what Owen Gleiberman suggests, Cypher isn’t an Obi Wan character. He’s much more like Sgt. Al Powell in Die Hard – a guide on the radio. But there are some other truths about this film that make it an important milestone. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a young black male star in a big budget sci-fi film and not get killed in the first five minutes. Not only that – he’s got a father who is a positive role model – and a mother who isn’t angry but supportive. This may not seem important to a lot of people but this is HUGE for young black kids to look up on billboards and see not one but two faces that look like them who aren’t cooning. The only other time we’ve seen this something similar is Karate Kid – also thanks to Will Smith. Kudos to Will and M. Knight for making this happen. Structurally, the story is sound but it’s not about a lot of crazy shock value so you’ve gotta get past that. Where Oblivion was truly a disappointment in its conclusion and plot reveals, After Earth strives to create something that sticks to your bones even without any huge surprises. It’s relatively slow and extremely steady with a cast that all deliver solid though not groundbreaking performances. This film’s weakness comes in its inability to push the boundaries of the genre or of the actors. I’m still waiting for a film to challenge The Matrix in terms of presenting something fresh, new and exciting. Jaden isn’t going to win any awards with this one but he’s believable. This is where the script could have used the wit from someone like Shane Black or Joss Whedon. Instead Shyamalan, Smith and Gary Whitta take his very cautious approach to dialogue, rarely having his characters’ utter words that are truly insightful or passionate although you can sense that the intent is there. In the end, After Earth offers an organic vision of the future with some of the most unique spacecraft designs to date. As with all of Shyamalan’s movies, the craftsmanship is apparent in every frame and there’s meaning under the surface that may take a while longer to resonate with general audiences.
So don’t set expectations low going into After Earth, just don’t expect what the trailer tries to sell. The film does play out like a video game with a distinct goal to reach and a timer for it to be reached but there are some nice moments that would have been much more well received in a time when films like 2001 allowed for sci-fi to be more than just 90 minutes of extended fight sequences and explosions.