Of all the careers in Hollywood, none was more unfortunate than that of M. Night Shyamalan…
Unfortunate, indeed. Believe it or not, there was once a time when Shyamalan made good movies. The Sixth Sense we all know is a terrific film, Unbreakable might be the most underrated film of all time, Signs is a great, suspenseful Sci-Fi, and even The Village has its own spectacular merits. But, after leaving Touchstone Pictures, Shyamalan fell from grace hard. Starting with Lady in the Water, he made three horrible films in a row, and has practically become a punchline in his own industry. His latest film, After Earth, didn’t ease things. A starring vehicle for Will Smith’s son Jaden, the studio went so far as to hide Shyamalan’s name in advertising. However, the plan backfired. It seemed like the film had bigger problems than just Shyamalan. So when all is said and done, the movie is finished, and I get to thinking, I come to the conclusion that… It’s not that bad.
Let me just clarify. I am not saying this is a good movie, but it’s perhaps Shyamalan’s least bad film since leaving Touchstone.
As the film begins, humanity has been relocated to the planet Nova Prime after the destruction of Earth. Though some really awkward exposition, we find out that, 1,000 years later, aliens sent creatures called Ursas to attack us. These creatures locate prey by detecting fear. To be invisible to these creatures is called “Ghosting”. This is where the fearless Ranger Corps comes in, with the most revered of them being General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who, aside from having an unfortunate name, also has unfortunate problems with his family. His son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying hard to please his father, but doesn’t seem to be doing so. Cypher, on his last mission before retirement, brings Kitai with him. However, when an asteroid shower strands them on the now quarantined Earth, where everything has evolved to kill, Kitai must venture out across the planet to retrieve a distress beacon, and learn to survive by overcoming his fears.
Based on the opening, my hopes were not high, and the script can pretty much be summed up that way. The dialogue in the film is quite weak, though thankfully the moments of no dialogue are much more bearable - a welcome change of pace after the onslaught of exposition that was The Last Airbender. The characterizations are shaky, the back stories are half baked, and the film also has moments where it suffers from its own stupid logic. For instance, take the Ursas, which detect humans based on the pheromones they give off when they’re afraid. Honestly, there’s a great idea in that. Creatures that have that ability would be a wonderful concept, as an extra-sensory tool to seek out prey, which would honestly be quite scary. Only problem, however, is that these creatures are blind, and can ONLY see humans based on their fear pheromones. You see what’s wrong there, BECAUSE I CERTAINLY DO! Why didn’t these aliens just go that extra mile and give the Ursas sight?! This is Screenwriting 101, guys! Did you even think this through?! WHAT THE HE-
However, the problems don’t stop there. The plot of Kitai trying to prove to his father that he is capable of handling himself feels like an unintentional metaphor, like Jaden Smith is trying to prove to his famous father that he can handle a movie of this scope, and he unfortunately fails. I won’t be too harsh on him, I’m sure he’s trying his best, but he isn’t the type to carry a film almost entirely on his own. It doesn’t help matters that Will Smith appears to literally be acting in his sleep, and when the film attempts to achieve sentimentality through their bond, it fares with middling results. There’s also been controversy for alleged Scientology subtext (seeing as how Will Smith is a scientologist), but I honestly don’t see it. It might have been obvious, and I just missed it, but maybe the movie is so bored of itself, even subtext doesn’t register.
However, I still think there are some decent, even great qualities to this movie. Shyamalan, despite suffering due to his own screenwriting vices, shows that he still has the potential as a director. The film does contain some genuine tension, and with a lot of tweaking to the writing, would make a solid survival film. There’s an interesting concept with Earth’s fluctuating temperatures, and the planet completely freezes over every night, except in specific hotspots, and it does lead to some genuine urgency, and some of the action in the film is actually half decent. On top of that, the film boasts some great technical qualities. The effects (though sometimes tacky) are top notch stuff, and the film is nicely shot by long time David Cronenberg collaborator Peter Suschitzky. And since this is a Shyamalan film, it should also be noted that, for the fourth time in a row, James Newton Howard’s orchestral score is unsurprisingly the movie’s best quality.
I find myself split over After Earth. If you find yourself despising this movie, I completely understand, but I’ll just have to be considered among a minority opinion that doesn’t find the film that bad. For purely selfish reasons, I want to give this film an extra half star boost, but I think the bad sadly outweighs the good. Regardless, I think After Earth proves that Shyamalan still has talent. Now, if only he’d put that talent to better use, and stop writing his own scripts…
** / *****