Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth

AFTER EARTH: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (100 min.)

This has to be the end for him, right?

Surely, we can’t get another one, can we?

I hereby declare After Earth the final nail in M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial coffin. If I am wrong, and he returns, we all lose. It really is a shame seeing the deterioration of the man as a writer maybe even more so than a director. The Sixth Sense was an awe-inspiring debut, and fanboys across the landscape site his follow up, Unbreakable, as his best film (include me in that opinion). Even though Signs was a smash hit, things began wobbling. Then came the trifecta of The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, each worse than the previous, followed by the disastrous adaptation of The Last Airbender. And that is where we find After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest step in his long and painful death march. Here is the very definition of laziness in storytelling.

In the future, earth has become uninhabitable because of the human race’s general destructive nature. A mass exodus sends the surviving humans to another planet somewhere else that is never really geographically explained. It’s just somewhere. But wouldn’t you know it, this new planet humans are sent to is occupied by evil aliens who, because they are blind, smell the pheromones we release when we are afraid to hunt us and mow us down mercilessly. Call me crazy, but a reconnaissance mission to the planet I am about to move the human race to would be vital.

But wait; there is a savior among the humans. It is Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who has mastered the ability to completely ignore fear as an emotion and “ghost” on the aliens to kill them without them ever sniffing him. Cypher’s ability to mask his fear has also turned him into a boring and rather robotic presence on the screen. His son is Kitai (Smith’s real-life son Jaden), a smart kid with a supreme desire to gain his father’s approval; Kitai’s fear holds him back from becoming a “Ranger” (of what I don’t know. Who knows what the military branch is in charge or what the organizational structure might be, that’s been carelessly removed in the editing room). Something tells me along the way Kitai will have to face his fears. Cypher also seems to blame young Kitai for the death of his older sister in an alien attack when Kitai was maybe ten years old. So dad is mad at son for not stopping an alien monster the size of a kitchen from attacking his older sister when he was ten? And the nonsense piles up…

Cypher has to leave his family once again and take one of the alien beings back to… somewhere. Why are we transporting him? Beats me. It apparently stifled Shyamalan as he was laboring through the script because he never explains anything he needs to explain in the screenplay. Instead, he lays out all the obvious plot points with cheap technological explanations or flat dialogue or disgustingly cheap emotional manipulations. Anyways, Kitai tags along with his dad on this rather routine mission which goes south quickly once an asteroid storm damages the ship and forces them to crash land on Earth, the most dangerous planet for humans in this corny universe. Oddly enough, a crew of twenty or so soldiers is all killed instantly leaving on Cypher and his teenage son the only ones left alive. Convenient. But wait, Cypher’s legs are broken and they must get to the tail of the ship that’s about 100 kilometers away for some arbitrary plot-driven reason. This means Kitai must rough the wild and get to the tail before they both die.

So here is the dangerous planet earth with wild beasts and dangerous toxic air, but it really could have been any planet. There are no philosophical or theological undertones to any of the proceedings and there is no real reference to earth other than Cypher telling Kitai ominously, “this… is Earth.” The film dissolves into a “nick of time” thriller, where things happen just at the right moment so the character avoids danger, no matter how cheap the out may be. Kitai finds danger, and squeaks away right at the end, over and over. And these issues he runs into are so contrived the entire thing feels like an obstacle course being watched by Ed Harris’ character from The Truman Show. There are moments with some of the creatures on earth that try and pull emotion from the audience, but they are so insulting it works conversely. And then, near the end, communication is severed between Kitai and Cypher back at the ship so Cypher stares at his son on a convenient video camera and wills him to move in the right direction? Is that what I am supposed to think? I guess, unless these two have developed supernatural powers somewhere along the way.

I could go on and on about the ridiculous developments and flawed logic in After Earth, and maybe I will one day. But that might require a second viewing and I don’t think I could stomach the 100 minutes again. I wonder if this film was severely edited by studio execs who saw what they had and panicked to at least make it short to increase play times and box office. Had this been some epic film over two hours it may have helped, but I seriously doubt it. The problem is not in the length, but in the laziness of absolutely everything outside of Jaden Smith’s performance. That, however, is a band aid on a severed head, the now severed head of M. Night Shyamalan’s career.