Note: The appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.
“After Earth” directed by M. Night Shyamalan, appears to be one of those films audiences like and critics loathe.
It’s been treated pretty badly by reviewers, though it seems to be doing all right at the box office.
Shyamalan could use a hit about now. After the initial success of “The Sixth Sense” his movies have declined in profitability, until bottoming out with “The Lady in the Water.” His next two movies did somewhat better so perhaps the trend line is heading upwards.
In “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” Shaymalan managed to hit you at the end with a genuinely unexpected twist, after having left you with just enough hints to make you feel stupid you hadn’t seen it coming.
But that’s a hard act to follow once you know it’s coming. The first two were followed by the surpassingly awful “Signs,” then a series of films which were nice in an art-housey sort of way, but not blockbusters.
“After Earth” is a SciFi/action film Shaymalan co-wrote with Gary Whitta based on an original story idea by Will Smith, who stars as General Cypher Raige.
“Original” is stretching things a bit. It’s the story of a boy who has to hike across the wilderness to bring help to his injured father. The plot was based on a real incident Will Smith’s brother-in-law brought to his attention. It’s been done before, but the exotic setting allows for non-stop action with spectacular special effects.
It’s a story of estranged father and son bonding through shared danger, the son coming of age and learning to deal with fear and a traumatic childhood incident.
The setting is Earth about a thousand years from now after it’s been abandoned following an environmental catastrophe which changed nature on Earth into something as alien as another planet. The same thing that’s being done on the ScyFy series “Deliverance,” and the History Channel’s “Life after People” and
why are we finding that idea so fascinating these days?
In the backstory, Raige led the elite Rangers in fighting Ursas, alien monsters sent to destroy humanity on it’s new home Nova Prime.
Ursas are blind, but can smell fear and home in on it. Gen. Raige discovered how to conquer fear, and through a technique called “ghosting” walk up to these critturs and slice and dice them with hi-tech swords. Just shooting them seems to be unsporting or something.
His son Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is traumatized by the memory of seeing his big sister Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) killed in their living room by an Ursa while he hid under a big fishbowl. Kitai is a Ranger cadet, but didn’t make the cut this year and thinks he’s a disappointment to his mostly absent father.
His mother Faia (Sophie Okonedo), urges Cypher to take their son along on a space voyage to spend a little quality time together.
They’re shipwrecked on Earth and Cypher is immobilized by two broken legs. Kitai must hike 100 kilometers across a wilderness filled with hostile life forms to retrieve and activate a rescue beacon, guided by his father through a communications link that goes wonky at just the right time to raise the suspense level.
To complicate matters the only other survivor is a captive Ursa they were transporting somewhere for training purposes.
The scenery is spectacular, set in the already alien-looking Redwood Forest with some CGI help.
The acting is better than the critics have given father and son credit for. Will Smith acts with a gravitas appropriate for a general, very unlike the wisecracking variations of the “Fresh Prince” he’s done since he was a teenager.
Jaden Smith acts like exactly what he’s supposed to be – a really scared kid trying to reach deep down inside for the courage he needs to survive and save his father.
Kitai almost gets himself killed by failing to listen to his father – and then at a crucial point has to make the decision to override his father’s orders and trust his own judgment. In that moment he becomes a man.
There is a nice pair of bookends at the beginning and end of the film, when men struggle to their feet to salute a hero. There are a few moments of the kind my son calls “jumpy scares,” and a twist at the end that’s understated rather than a shocker.
My kids loved it, so why don’t the critics?
I don’t know. Maybe Shaymalan is going in a new direction and the critics haven’t caught up yet? Maybe that goes for Will Smith’s choice of roles as well.
Go ahead and take your kids to see it. It could be an opportunity to talk about the theme with them.
“Danger is real. Fear is a choice.”