after-earth-jaden-smith-volcano

Some stunning shots in this movie.

I expected a Shyamalanatastrophe with After Earth. Although the first, stunning trailer was very good, the more information that came out about this movie the more convinced I was that it would be fucking awful. I read all about how Will Smith came up with the idea and decided to make a multimedia empire around this detailed, ludicrous backstory. A 300 page “Bible” was written, comic book guys were brought on to make supplementary stuff, and the whole project ignored all the other attempts to do this that feel dismally flat (The Matrix, Southland Tales, etc). Honestly, I expect the same for After Earth. It won’t become some new Star Wars even with the considerable influence of Smith.

That said, the movie is not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. Maybe a bit slight, given that it tells a small scale story in a large scale world. Like YA books, it uses its big concepts more for backdrop and setting than for actual storytelling. The story is intimate, with only a few characters and some straightforward thematic work (which is resonant almost in spite of itself). People who are expecting bigger payoffs to the lore are going to come away disappointed. This is a movie that does world-building by implication more than exposition. As such, we aren’t told much that we don’t expressly need to know to follow the core story. The one exception is a long bit of lumpy exposition delivered in the drawling “space human” accent of Jaden Smith. Still, there’s a distinct likelihood that this is going to frustrate a lot of viewers. In many ways After Earth feels incomplete with many opportunities to show off concepts and details left to fall by the wayside. I assume the idea was to get away from conventional tropes and payoffs, but there’s a balance that this movie doesn’t quite get to.

What makes the movie good is that it’s fully in command of that smaller, core story. With the resonant themes, sense of scale, and a well designed world to play around in, Shyamalan and writing partner Gary Whitta take Smith’s story idea and do fine, unambitious work with it. There’s room in the world for humble, one-off stories that leverage an epic backstory for intimate storytelling. That said, don’t expect a legitimate science fiction movie out of After Earth. It’s a fantasy movie that happens to have neat technology, space ships, and aliens. It is not speculative or scientific in the least.

AfterEarthSCREENCAP25

Smith is playing the ultimate badass but we barely see it.

The backstory of the movie is quite involved and little of it is fully explained or shown by the movie. A bit too much telling over showing is what I was getting at when I talked about a feeling of incompleteness. A great example is Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his status as the Prime Commander of the Rangers, humans first line of defense. Not only is the alien race that attacks humanity’s colonies, even the new homeworld Nova Prime, but the details of how this war proceeds aren’t present. There’s only the briefest glimpse of Cypher’s combat prowess, used to explain the concept of “Ghosting” and no explanation given for why humans don’t use projectile weapons a thousand years from now.

After ruining Earth, humans venture out into the stars where they make a new home on a desolate, arid world that looks like Arizona (with accents to match). Once they’ve established themselves, they are attacked by hostile aliens who use biologically engineered hunter-killers called ursas. The ursas are dropped from pods and track humans by smelling our fear (we give off pheromones). Ghosting is a technique employed by the best Rangers in which they switch their fear off and become effectively invisible.

All this information is delivered to us by voiceover from Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith). Both the Raiges, and seemingly no one else in the movie, use vague and drawling accents that suggest the Southwest United States. When I first heard it I thought “cool, a movie that acknowledges how speech patterns would change after a thousand years” though even this would be nominal. Of course, every other character has a different accent so it just comes off like some weird affectation rendered unnecessary by inconsistency. This is one of many smaller hiccups in the presentation of the movie and I mention it specifically because it bothered me a bit that there was no payoff or point.

130107AfterEarth_7097308

Families that breathe together stay together.

The core story of the movie is much simpler. Kitai is a cadet Ranger and his impulsiveness and petulance have kept him from advancing. Wanting desperately to please his distant father, the great warrior and general Cypher Raige, he has thrown everything into this and is left despondent and insecure. Though Cypher knows what his career has cost his family and himself (as a father and husband), he still has a hard time relating to his son. Poised to retire, he follows the advice of his wife Faia (Sophie Onokedo) to take Kitai along with him on one last journey.

The source of a lot of the angst among the hilariously named Raiges is the death of the even more hilariously named Senshi Raige (Zoe Kravitz), Kitai’s older sister. Senshi followed in their father’s footsteps first, becoming a Ranger. Through flashbacks that serve less as a reveal or plot device and more as a thematic reminder, we see that Senshi died badly fighting an ursa and trying to protect Kitai. Both male Raiges blame themselves but think they blame the other, so there’s a lot of tension and undealt with trauma in their relationship. Faia sees all this and delivers an actually beautiful, soft lecture to Cypher about what their son needs from him. It’s an early sign about where this movie’s heart is.

En route to a planet where Rangers are trained fighting captive ursas, their ship the Hesper, comes across a freak asteroid storm. The ship suffers severe damage and has to jump away using a wormhole-based FTL. The computer autoselects their destination and they wind up in Earth orbit. Earth is now a “Class 1 Quarantined Planet” which means it’s totally unsafe for humans. Without another choice, Cypher orders his pilots to attempt landing. Unfortunately for all involved, the ship breaks into two in its descent, with the tail section holding a captive ursa. Everybody except Kitai seems to be dead until he finds his gravely injured father in the rubble of the ship.

After-Earth-Zoe-Kravitz

Zoe Kravitz manages to do quite a bit with limited screen time. We really feel her death, especially as more of its grisly barbarity is revealed.

With two broken legs, a broken emergency beacon, and only his untested (unworthy?) son to get them saved, Cypher’s situation is pretty desperate. He’s a tough SOB, however, and he quickly establishes a plan of action. The bulk of the movie follows Kitai’s perilous quest across the desolate, deadly landscape of the changed Earth. On the surface, this is a survival story. Slightly beneath that surface, there’s the conflict between these two characters and the realization of their bond. Kitai needs to overcome his fear, which means overcoming his past, and his father needs to learn who he is so he can accept him. They both struggle with false impressions of each other, all tied up with inner turmoil over Senshi’s death. Kitai believes he should have done more and projects this guilt onto his dad, expecting and seeing disapproval in every facial expression and word. Cypher also thinks he should have done more, should have been there period, and his guilt manifests as coldness and a vague disapproval of Kitai’s path (even he probably doesn’t realize he wants Kitai to be safe, thus not a Ranger). The pathos and motives of these characters comes across wonderfully. The challenge is that Kitai’s petulance and fear make him a tad annoying at first. He makes a lot of mistakes and whines quite a bit but the point is that he needs to settle his inner conflict and guilt in order to rise above these limitations.

As a statement about overcoming fear, After Earth may reach significant levels of poignancy for people who struggle with anxiety. A lot of the reactions Kitai has in his hostile surroundings feel natural. This movie’s version of the Litany Against Fear (from Dune) functions both as Cypher’s badass explanation of the mental state of Ghosting and as an expression of the Zen Buddhist fatalism that informs the frequently Japanese motifs in the movie (names like Senshi, for example). It’s also a great, focused iteration of a theory of fear (and overcoming it) that probably works well for people who can pull it off. Cypher telling the story of his first Ghosting and how he accomplished it while Kitai shivers in rain, cold, and danger is just a great moment that solidifies who Cypher is, good and bad. Here’s a man who’s hard as nails, both remote and inspiring to his son (and us). This kind of nuanced characterization is definitely After Earth‘s strong suit.

After-Earth-Photo

Also nice is the appreciation and awe of the altered, wild Earth.

Some have joked that After Earth is a sequel to The Happening. In that abominable film, Shyamalan showed us a world that was trying to kill us in ludicrous ways. The gist was that we were fucking the environment and it was determined to fuck us right back. After Earth takes place a thousand years after we’ve left a planet we ruined, but it’s probably not supposed to be a continuation of The Happening (funny as that is). It seems to have got on just fine without us. As ridiculous as the notion that “everything here evolved to kill humans” is (how, when humans are gone?), there’s a sense of wild splendor that imitates that of Avatar‘s Pandora. The flora and fauna are changed, but not unrecognizable. And as hostile as the place is, there’s still beauty and possibly even companionship amidst the death and danger. In an example of a nice touch that I wish was less undercooked (sort of a theme for me and this movie), Kitai is half-befriended by a giant goddamn bird that winds up sacrificing itself for him. This movie takes death pretty seriously, to its credit, and Kitai is almost constantly in very real danger. But not just him. Earlier, we have to watch a bunch of jackal-cougars kill the baby birds, for example. Not pretty.

Kitai’s quest to retrieve a working beacon from the tail end of the ship is also on a timer, if the environment wasn’t bad enough. This is a movie with stakes, even though they aren’t epic stakes. If Kitai can’t get to the beacon fast, he’ll die as he runs out of rebreathers. Likewise, Cypher will bleed out due to a ruptured artery in his broken leg. He tries to do an arterial shunt, which brutal, but it doesn’t work and he’s basically dying slowly the whole movie. But he won’t leave Kitai alone, if he can help it. He even refused to take painkillers because they will muddle him up.

reg_1024.AfterEarth3.mh.121112

The movie is full of cool tech and gadgets that are internally consistent and heavily reference materials science.

On top of the dangerous world, the ticking clock, and his daddy issues, Kitai is also being stalked by the fucking ursa. Oh yes, that thing. It’s still alive, and uses “fear triggers” which is basically impaling people on spikes to scare survivors so it can stalk them. The ursa is a poorly and busily designed insectoid. It looks exactly like the aliens in Cowboys and Aliens and Super 8. That said, what it does and how it functions are scary enough that the poor design is of smaller consequence.

Speaking of design. After Earth features a pretty unique spin on futuristic tech. Yes it has the silly jumpsuits and gleaming spaceships, but it also emphasizes metamaterials more than most “scifi” does. The Lifesuit that Kitai wears is practically a character in the movie. It changes color in response to toxins, temperature, threats, etc (and even gets bumpy and armored in texture) and has inbuilt backpack, communicator, and holster for a cutlass, the Rangers’ signature weapon. The cutlass is very cool. It’s basically a rod with smart metals in the shaft which can be expanded and configured into a variety of different blades and tools. It can even be split and wielded ambidextrously. It’s an iconic weapon and I bet kids will love it. Similarly, After Earth bases a lot of its other technology on “smart” materials like fabrics. Even the ship looks like it’s made of cloth on the inside at least. Three dimensional maps, thick-fabric utility closets, and an organic-looking air filter are all other examples of cool tech in the movie.

after-earth-super

Kitai splits the cutlass into two katana-like weapons in preparation for his final battle.

As Kitai progresses through his adventure, he flashes back to Senshi’s death over and over. It’s only when he lets himself remember all of it that something clicks into place. No longer feeling guilt for being too afraid to come out of the capsule and die alongside his sister, he accepts his fear and gets past it. Ghosting, he fights and kills the ursa in what is actually a pretty great sequence. That this echoes the story of Cypher is relevant, especially when the cheesy earlier scene with the soldier who Cypher saved forcing himself to get up (on one remaining leg) to salute his hero. When Kitai again faces his father, Cypher imitates the behavior of that soldier and Kitai not only gets his love and acceptance reaffirmed, he also accomplishes his earlier goal of becoming a good Ranger.

And really, the fucking kid deserves it. I expected more of a kid superhero vibe from this movie. Instead, Kitai is a flawed and scared little boy. This works way better, really, and is something Jaden Smith does well (Kitai isn’t so different from his character in The Karate Kid). While Will plays restrained and stoic, Jaden plays volatile and emotional. In a relatively humorless movie, there’s some subtle humor here and there that works well and breaks up the seriousness almost as well as the movie’s big beating heart.

after_earth_movie

I wonder how much of the movie’s story echoes what life is like for the Smith kids with their busy father.

Though they don’t save the universe from the anonymous aliens, the catharsis works nicely. I would liked a bit better execution and payoff for some of the silly lore in this movie, but what you get instead is far from bad. A lesser movie would have just done the paint by numbers race from setpiece to setpiece with no stakes and only the barest adherence to some kind of emotional core. After Earth actually bothers to try and get you to care about Kitai and Cypher’s estrangement and survival.

It isn’t a great big sweeping deal like maybe they wanted it to be. Instead, it’s a small victory. A minor win for Shyamalan who needs all the wins he can get. For the Smiths, it’s a safe and probably fun team-up that is a challenge if only because neither of them is coasting on charm here.

For us, it’s a minor league fantasy movie that will probably score bigger for the kids who are going to end up seeing Epic instead. Meanwhile, bloodthirsty millenial geeks like me will sparsely attend After Earth hoping it’s a trainwreck and finding that it’s actually all right. It’s always confusing when you expect to hate a movie and don’t love it, but kinda like it instead.

Advertisements