Wednesday, June 05, 2013

After Earth / ** (PG-13)

Kitai Raige: Jaden Smith
Cypher Raige: Will Smith
Faia Raige: Sophie Okonedo
Senshi Raige: Zoë Isabella Kravitz

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Written by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan. Based on a story by Will Smith. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images).

There are capable filmmakers and there are mediocre filmmakers and there are former filmmakers. Director M. Night Shyamalan falls in the capable filmmaker category. What keeps him from entering the forth filmmaker category, the great filmmakers, is that he has yet to realize him limitations, which mostly come in the writing department. He will never be a mediocre filmmaker, so the only way for him to stay out of the former filmmaker category is to come to terms with the fact that there are certain scripts that he should leave to more capable hands.

Shyamalan’s early scripts resulted in his two most brilliant features, “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. He dealt with genre material from his own unique point of view. While he has continued to explore genre, his point of view has gotten less and less unique. He hit a low with his last project “The Last Airbender”, which adapted the first part of the popular anime television series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to live action. It was the first movie he’s made that wasn’t from his own original idea. Working with other people’s ideas seems to have an adverse affect on his judgment as a storyteller. “Airbender” was devoid of any of the genius that was so affecting in Shyamalan’s early work. His latest, “After Earth”, doesn’t suffer nearly as much. The direction once again shows some of the talent of his early work, but the characters and their obstacles still lack imagination and logic.

The story actually comes from the mind of one of the film’s stars, actor Will Smith. Shyamalan and co-screenwriter Gary Whitta have taken Smith’s story and imbued it with clichés and unbelievable elements that might serve the plot, but feel like they haven’t had as much thought invested in them as the film’s very original production design. A full on science fiction, “After Earth” tells about a future of the human race where our abuses against our own planet have driven us from the Earth, leaving it uninhabitable to human life. We’ve settled galaxies away on a planet dubbed Nova Prime. After arriving, we find we weren’t invited and have become hunted by an alien race that utilize a creature called the Ursa, which while blind hunt by sensing the pheromones produced by the emotions of fear. The only way we can fight these creatures is through a process called “ghosting,” in which we must exist without any fear.

This is an overly complex set up to tell a survival tale about a father and son who’ve never really known each other. Shyamalan is efficient in the way he doles out all this information, however. Will Smith and his son Jaden play the father and son. The elder is one of the most revered soldiers of the most elite military faction, the Rangers. The son has been rejected as a Ranger at his first attempt. The father has one last mission before retirement and decides to take the son along for some bonding. The ship is damaged in an asteroid field and crash-lands on Earth. It has been over 1000 years since man set foot on the planet.

This is where things start to fall apart. The father is injured in the crash and the son must venture out by himself to recover a rescue beacon from a section of the ship that landed miles away. This is when Will Smith utters one of the least fathomable lines of the movie. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” Huh? Does that make sense to anyone else? If man hasn’t been on the planet for 1000 years, how could we have influenced the evolution of anything during that time?

Other details are like nails on the chalkboard of suspension of disbelief. Apparently, the surface temperature of the planet drops well below zero every night. This is a perfect example of one of the invented crises that hasn’t really been thought through. The boy travels through lush green forests during the day that would be destroyed each night from the hard freeze. There’s no way the forests could survive this environment. Of course like any detail, a line or two of dialogue about how the forests have sped up their life cycles to a daily pattern could rectify this. Even that wouldn’t fully explain the contradiction of elements, but at least it would reveal an effort to make sense of it.

That’s just nit picking, however. What is really lacking here is a true sense of emotional power. The characters of the father and the son are cookie cutter at best. Dad is a hard-nosed soldier who doesn’t know how to relate to his kid on a human level. The screenplay never even really has him try. The kid is full of anger about a past incident for which he blames himself and believes his father does as well. These are about the only dimensions on which these characters exist. Will Smith’s role goes against type. It requires some fine acting by the star, but I don’t understand why his talents would be wasted on such a typical character. Jaden seems capable enough carrying this material, but that’s not really a tough acting assignment.

Unfortunately for both Smith’s, the entire project feels like a showcase event for Jaden’s introduction as a major movie star. Will takes a backseat to his son in a project that cannot begin to hide the fact that it was designed for the sole purpose of featuring Jaden in a starring role. The isolation of the characters backfires against this purpose by giving very little for Jaden to act against. Individual ideas and emotion existing in a vacuum do not make for a great dramatic test of an actor.

Shyamalan still shows some master knowledge of suspense. He understands Hitchcock’s notion that showing the audience an exploding bomb is not as suspenseful as showing us that there is a bomb that will explode at some point. He keeps the Ursa in the characters’ and audience’s minds throughout, but refrains from showing much of the beast until the final moments of conflict. Many of the films environmental details are very effective, including having the characters speak in a slight accent that has become the dialect of these future humans. For his directing skill, I still haven’t lost all faith in Shyamalan, but I’m really hoping he recovers the spiraling airplane that his career has become before it falls past the point of no return. 

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