Tuesday, February 11, 2014

DVD Review - After Earth (Black History Month)

Jaden Smith (left) and Will Smith
in a scene from "After Earth"
When it comes to African-Americans in Hollywood, the history books will have to note Will Smith no matter what. The teenage rapper from Philadelphia in the 1980s went on to become one of the biggest movie stars in the 90s. Starting in 1995 with Bad Boys and noticeably with Independence Day, Will Smith has been starring in blockbuster after successful blockbuster and has earned two Academy Award nominations. He's the kind of guy who a major studio would trust with $100 million or more to make a movie. There aren't many African-American men who could command or demand that amount of money. Will Smith is one of very, very few.

It's clear that Will Smith commanded that amount of money for After Earth. This movie was not one that Sony Pictures brought to him. It's one he brought to Sony. Smith is credited as writing the story for this film. He, his wife and brother-in-law are listed as producers. Smith's teenage son, Jaden Smith, now 15, is his co-star and shoulders most of the screen time. Smith even hired fellow Philadelphian M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and The Last Airbender) to direct.

After Earth take place 1000 years into the future. It's stated that humans have evacuated due to pollution and war, which have made Earth inhospitable. Therefore, humankind settles on a new planet called Novo Prime, which is itself attacked by an alien force that unleashes blind animals called Ursa to kill the humans. Fortunately, the humans developed rangers who have the ability to fight or contain these Ursa. Will Smith plays one such ranger named Cypher Raige. His real-life son Jaden Smith plays his teenage son in the movie named Kitai.

Again, all of this is stated in voice-over narration at the beginning of the film, which it shouldn't have been. It's too clunky that way. All of this information about Earth's back story should have been revealed in dialogue later in the film.

Cypher takes Kitai on a space mission from Novo Prime to some place. The details of the mission weren't properly conveyed, if conveyed at all. Yet, those details ultimately don't matter as the spaceship they use for travel gets caught in an asteroid storm and crashes mid-flight, landing on Earth inexplicably. Cypher tells Kitai that they're on Earth, as if that's supposed to be some kind of surprise, but the moment doesn't have that impact at all. Maybe, if all that voice-over at the top wasn't there, the moment would have had more meaning.

The spaceship splits in half like the plane on Lost. The tail of the ship detaches from the front and lands tons of kilometers away. Cypher and Kitai are the only two survivors. Yet, Cypher's legs are broken, so he can't walk. In order to get rescued, Kitai has to go to the tail of the ship, which is a four-day hike, and retrieve a homing beacon. Along the way, Kitai has to escape monsters that have now evolved on Earth as well as last on dangerous terrain and in poisonous yet clear atmosphere.

It seems like this movie could have been a kind of Jurassic Park. The template is there. The problem is Cypher's legs are broken, so instead of going on the adventure as father and son, facing challenges and creatures together, building their relationship and bonding, as in Jurassic Park, the movie separates the two and essentially gives Will Smith nothing to do, except sit around looking at computer monitors.

Future action star Jaden Smith
in a scene from "After Earth"
The movie overall has a Stars Wars prequel aesthetic. Sadly, the designs and production value seem only a slightly step up from Episode I - The Phantom Menace. The film also never addresses what the significance is of these characters being back on Earth. The planet where Cypher and Kitai crash could be any planet. There are no remnants, no buildings, no visual landmarks, no reminders as to why humanity left or anything to signify they're even on Earth. Yes, it's 1000 years into the future, but some visual landmarks would presumably still stand.

Unfortunately, Jaden Smith who looks like his father doesn't quite yet have the charisma and commanding screen presence of Will Smith. It's almost immediate that one can tell that Jaden Smith is not giving a good performance here. The boy was well used in The Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid (2010), so I have to assume that it's due to the writing and directing that kills Jaden's performance.

There is a scene where Kitai yells at Cypher that proves how the writing and Shyamalan's direction might have done so. It would have worked if the two actors were face to face. As it is, it looks as if Kitai is merely having a childish temper tantrum, which might be the point, but it's off-putting because the moment should be more of a boy-becoming-a-man and asserting himself uprightly. It also should have been a man realizing his son's true fear, that of disappointing his father, but the two of them acting alone kills that. Some lower angle camera shots on Jaden might have also helped but Shyamalan's standard, eye-level camera shots lay things out flatly.

The writing of the scene almost works as a metaphor or perhaps echo of Jaden Smith's real-life. Kitai screams that his father wasn't there. Given Jaden Smith's father is a movie and former music star, the idea that Will Smith might have been unavailable is not unlikely. All accounts are that Will Smith is a great father, but if Jaden Smith and Shyamalan had played it better, the scene could have had more resonance.

One Star out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for action violence and some disturbing images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.

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