Review: After Earth
After Earth is at its best when it is at its simplest. The premise, which finds a decorated general on his "last mission" (Will Smith, playing a character named Cypher Raige, because future) crash landed on a long abandoned Earth and forced to help his young son (Jaden Smith) navigate the hostile planet to find a distress beacon and get them rescued, is pretty straightforward. Cypher's legs are broken, so his son Kitai is forced to make the journey alone, staying in contact with his father through a communicator that monitors his vitals and lets his father see what he sees. When the movie is about the young boy's journey through this "alien" world, it can be an exciting film. Though it relies heavily on CGI, the Earth of the movie is well-developed and the film excels at world-building. There is a tactile feel to all of the environments--the shape and texture of the bark, the way the plants have evolved to deal with weather fluctuations, and the various ecosystems that have developed over time all come fully realized, and watching Kitai discover them and the dangers they possess can be viscerally thrilling. This may come as a surprise to some, but After Earth is an extraordinarily well-directed film. It breathes life into the landscape, builds suspense with every different challenge Kitai might face, and is propulsive in places where it would be very easy to lag. There's a reverence for nature, and a deep-seated fear of what it can do when unloosed, at the core of this film, and many of its high points come in the exploration of that.
Thematically, the film also works well when it is stripped to its core elements. Years of doing battle (with what we will, unfortunately, get to in a moment) have turned Cypher into, well, a cipher, a man so accustomed to making tough decisions and masking his emotions he finds expressing feeling difficult. Kitai has just been denied promotion because he does express emotion, and he struggles throughout the film to suppress that because it will make him a better warrior and more likely to survive. Will Smith delivers one of his best performances here simply because of how restrained he is, both physically (Cypher's injury means he spends most of the film in a chair) and emotionally. Instead of playing to the rafters or exuding the easy charm he has become known for, he emotes with his eyes, and with the slightest movements of his body. He captures the worries and, yes, fears of Cypher, but he does so subtly; this is a man well-trained in not feeling, who is being slowly brought back to life by watching his son in danger. There's a latent existentialism in both the philosophy of the film's characters (as Cypher says at one point, "danger is real; fear is a choice") and in its narrative of a boy struggling alone against the elements. Cypher and Kitai will live, or they won't, and it largely comes down to the choices the younger one makes. When the film is letting this central narrative play out, it gives the audience the space to explore these issues, crystallizing some interesting ideas by laying them bare. Its simplicity is often elegant, and the best sequences carry with them a quiet grace as a result.
Unfortunately, the film's script (co-written by Shyamalan, Gary Whitta, and Stephen Gaghan) seems committed to making everything much more complicated than it needs to be. The film's opening minutes are packed to the gills with exposition, a lot of which is ludicrously dumb, and all of which is, ultimately, unnecessary to the film. What works about After Earth is its barest narrative of struggle against nature. What doesn't are the sci-fi trappings it keeps trying to throw into the mix. See, humans have relocated from Earth, but the planet they now occupy is also home to unnamed and never seen aliens who they are in constant conflict with. These aliens have created genetically modified creatures called Ursa (the film also thinks its naming is much cleverer than it is. Cypher is a cipher, Ursa, which means bear, is a physical threat, and Kitai, which means hope, is the only hope for survival) who are blind, but hunt humans based on fear. Why the aliens would make the creatures blind is never addressed, so I can only imagine their blindness exists to allow for another completely unnecessary element of the film: "ghosting." See, Cypher has become a successful warrior because he is able to "ghost," or mask his fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursa. While this explains his lack of emotions, it seems to me the film could have found any number of explanations (he's been at war most of his life, which alone would have been enough for me), and ultimately the Ursa provides most of the least interesting aspects of the film.
Like its irrelevant plot complications, the film also seems dead set on creating thematic depth, but it is mostly incompetent at doing so. There are the transparent names, plenty of shoehorned references to Moby Dick, some anthropomorphizing of animals, and a flashback structure, all of which seem intended to turn the simple elegance of the film's story into something far more grandiose than After Earth can actually carry. The greatest thematic resonance came for me in the moments where the film seemed almost blissfully unaware that it was doing anything at all. There is no point rewriting the film as a critic, and its not particularly fair of me to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking, but a movie that cut out anything not set on Earth or the spaceship that crashes there, and that focused entirely on the threats the planet and nature posed instead of inserting an artificial one, might have been better, or at least more essential. As is, After Earth is simply a better movie than its inevitable reputation suggests.
This is not a classic film. Ultimately, its not even a great one, spending far too much of its run time getting in its own way. But After Earth is very good for long stretches, and its best elements are well worth the price of admission. Jaden Smith needs to grow as an actor before he can really carry a movie the way he is asked to here, but Will is at the top of his game. The direction is uniformly stellar, often transcending a script that trips over itself constantly, to the point where, from a directorial perspective, this may very well by Shyamalan's best film. The CGI is used well enough that it is never overbearing, and many of the worst elements are discarded for long passages where Kitai simply journeys through a world long abandoned by humanity. The less it tries to do, the more After Earth manages to pull off. In the end, its greatest accomplishment may lie in just how little it accomplishes. If only that had been the point.
Read more of Jordan's Film Criticism here