‘After Earth’- The Next ‘Battlefield Earth?’

Published 10:22 am Wednesday, June 5, 2013

After writer/director M. Night Shymalan’s incredible success with the supernatural thriller “The Sixth Sense,” he could seemingly do no wrong. His popularity continued to skyrocket after he followed “The Sixth Sense” with such great films as “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” Like Alfred Hitchcock, Shymalan drew crowds to the movies based on his name alone. He could easily cast unknown actors in his films and audiences would still flock to theaters to see what thrills and twists Shymalan had concocted this time. Unfortunately, after “Signs,” Shymalan’s promising track record began to waiver with “Lady in the Water*,” “The Happening,” and the final nail in his coffin, “The Last Airbender.” It’s disappointing that a writer/director with such creativity lost his credibility for producing quality films.

It’s no surprise, then, that in the marketing for Shymalan’s latest film, “After Earth,” his name is barely mentioned. So much so that I had to keep reminding myself that this is a Shymalan movie, so I should expect a fantastic twist and interesting storyline, right? Wrong. There is no glimmer of Shymalan in this film, no twist, no originality, nothing. This clearly was not a passion project of his and that disinterest shows in the final product; it seems he was just a director/writer-for-hire (Will Smith created the story and Shymalan directed the film and wrote the screenplay).

As a fan of Shymalan’s earlier work (I even liked “The Village!”), I convinced myself that “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender” were flukes, part of his sophomore slump. “After Earth” would be a platform to begin his magnificent comeback. After all, with all of the sequels and remakes rampant in Hollywood, I was excited that Shymalan was back to give audiences original material. Unfortunately, my hopes vanished after seeing “After Earth,” which (besides “The Last Airbender,” whose existence I refuse to acknowledge) may be his worst film yet.

“After Earth” is the latest movie starring father/son duo Will and Jaden Smith; the pair also starred together in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The film begins with a voiceover by Kitai (Jaden Smith), who is in training to be a soldier like his father. Kitai explains why humans had to be evacuated from Earth and moved to a new planet called Nova Prime. Unfortunately, the accents of the characters, which sound like a strange mixture of Southern (think Savannah, Ga.) and Jamaican, make this exposition difficult to understand. At different times in the movie, I was confused because I missed a lot of the information in that opening sequence. What I gathered, however, is that humans polluted Earth so badly, the planet became uninhabitable. Luckily, they found Nova Prime just in time to save humanity and develop a new civilization on this alien planet.

Speaking of aliens, the humans are (of course) not alone on Nova Prime; they find themselves hunted by an alien race known as the Ursas. Like sharks to blood, Ursas track humans through the pheromones released when the body feels afraid. It is up to the rangers, an elite fighting force, led by Kitai’s father General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) to protect civilization from this dangerous threat. As we quickly find out, Cypher is a living legend in Nova Prime. He was made commander of the ranger force after being the first human to successfully “ghost”, when a person can stop their fear response, thus making them invisible to the Ursas. Because of his talent, Cypher is constantly away from home, leading the rangers in battle against the Ursas. This absence creates a strained relationship between father and son.

When Kitai becomes upset after learning he may not be cut out to be a ranger like his father, Cypher decides to bond with his son and bring him on his last mission before retirement. The mission involves taking a captured Ursa to another planet to help rangers practice ghosting. As the mission gets underway, however, the ship hits an asteroid storm and must make a crash landing on the closest planet, Earth. The ship breaks apart in Earth’s atmosphere, leaving Kitai and Cypher as the only survivors; though, Cypher is severely injured. In order to save his dad and get them off of Earth, Kitai must single-handedly maneuver through Earth’s jungle-like environment to find a signaling device located in another part of the wreckage, while also avoiding the freed Ursa.

If you are looking for a fantastic science-fiction movie, showing what Earth will be like after humanity leaves, this is not the movie for you. In fact, the movie’s action could have taken place on any habitable planet. There are no visual references to recognizable places on Earth and besides baboons; even the animals are different (I don’t believe there are currently 30 ft. eagles on our planet). I kept waiting for a shot of an overgrown New York City, or something that would give me the realization that this is Earth, but unfortunately that never happened. Shymalan neglects the interesting idea of an overgrown Earth, which could provide stunning (even chilling) visuals, and instead focuses on a random jungle and active volcano.

I was also extremely disappointed by the visual effects. For such a high-budget film, the scenery looked more like an episode of the recently canceled TV show Terra Nova than a summer blockbuster. The colors of the jungle didn’t pop and instead faded into the background along with everything else. Bad visual effects are a death sentence for any science-fiction film, especially one that called for so much of it. The scenes inside the “high-tech” ship were so bad they made me cringe. Even the animals were second-rate. I’ve seen “Life of Pi,” Hollywood; I know you can do better.

Not only were the visuals poor, but also the storyline was boring, anti-climactic, and full of plot holes. For example, Cypher tells Kitai that everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans so he needs to be extra careful. Once Kitai starts off on his mission, however, nothing really tries to kill him except a leech. In fact, the huge eagle I mentioned earlier saves him. I also couldn’t figure out why the rangers were using swords to kill giant aliens in hand-to-hand combat. What happened to guns and missiles that could attack from further distances? Apparently Earth has evolved to kill humans, but humanity has devolved to using swords (or maybe I missed the explanation for this in Jaden’s opening monologue).

The only, and I repeat only, glimmer of hope in this terrible film is Jaden Smith. He has the potential to be a talented actor and really seemed to give his heart to the role. The emotional scenes with his father were powerful and I was able to take a break from hating the movie to focus on a decent performance. Will Smith, however, had the most listless performance of his entire career. It almost seemed he was tanking his role in the film to make Jaden look better (at least that’s what I’m telling myself). I realize Cypher is supposed to lack emotions and be a tough guy, but the Will Smith I know could make even that look good. “After Earth” also loses significant points for relegating Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) to about five minutes of screen time. Her talent is completely wasted on this role.

If you couldn’t already tell, I do NOT suggest you rush out to theaters to see “After Earth,” or even rush to Redbox when it comes out on DVD. Apparently Smith wants to turn this idea into a franchise, complete with sequels, videogames, and a TV show. However, I know I won’t be lining up to see any of it. On the bright side, congratulations John Travolta. It looks like “Battlefield Earth” has competition for the worst movie with “Earth” in its title.

My Review: D-/F

Note: For a GOOD movie with “Earth” in its title, check out the indie sci-fi hit, Another Earth, starring Brit Marling. It’s a great film.

*I actually enjoyed The Village AND Lady In The Water.

LAUREN BRADSHAW grew up in Courtland, graduated from Southampton Academy and doubled-majored in foreign affairs and history at the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, D.C., and can be reached at lnb5e@virginia.edu.