My demand is not that big when I enter the screening room for reviewing SF film. Regardless of the level of my expectation, I merely want to be entertained or excited by what it wants to show and tell us, and I always try to find something worthwhile to watch or muse on while checking whether my time and money are not wasted on the whole.
As watching M. Night Shyamalan’s SF movie “After Earth”, which will probably be chosen by many as one of the worst blockbuster films of this year, I sincerely tried to find anything nice to talk about, but my mind was quickly numbed by its tedious blandness. I kept finding more flaws and holes here and there in its shaky premise during its first half, and I felt more boredom as the movie sluggishly lurched toward the predictable finale with a subatomic amount of emotional payoff during its second half, and I was not impressed by anything shown on the screen during its 100 minutes even though they looked well-made in technical aspects.
At the beginning, we get obligatory background explanation. At some point in the future, the Earth became no longer suitable to live for the human race due to environment pollution, so humans got out of the Earth and then settled in some planet probably outside the solar system. The planet, which was named Nova Prime, does not look so different from the Earth, and I sometimes wondered whether they settled near the Grand Canyon(the movie was partly shot in New Mexico, US).
Not so surprisingly, they were not alone in Nova Prime, and there have been a conflict between humans and an alien race which is just barely mentioned and shown once and then never appears again in the movie. As some sort of living biological weapon against humans, a bunch of hideous creatures named Ursa were released, and most humans were helpless in front of these big eyeless creatures which can smell the fear from their main preys even though they lack visual sense. I think having one or two eyes will be more helpful to their hunt, but it seems these ugly beasts had done a pretty good job for a while only with smelling human fear near them.
Anyway, the humans eventually found a way to fight against Ursas. A heroic soldier named Cypher Raige(Will Smith, who looks as stoically wooden as he can) found a technique called ‘ghosting’, which enables soldiers to shut off fear even while recognizing danger to deal with. They can approach to the Ursas without being smelt by them, and then they quickly take care of these beasts with a weapon stick/spear which looks like a high tech version of Swiss army knife. I noticed that their technology is quite advanced enough to build fancy spaceships and travel around the universe faster than light, but, as far as I can remember from the movie, it looks like that stick is only weapon available to them. Seriously, can’t they think of any effective or more advanced ways other than dashing into a beast and slitting its neck?
Without getting any good idea about how it has been to the humans living in Nova Prime since the conflict, we are thrust into the story immediately. Cypher’s teenager son Kitai(Jaden Smith) has been trying to distinguish himself among the older cadets in the military academy as the only son of a man who is now a living legend among soldiers. Always maintaining the attitude of an overachiever, he tries hard, but he is not promoted again, and his relationship with his distant father remains as estranged as before despite the gentle presence of his mother Faia(criminally underutilized Sophie Okonedo) at their home.
Father and son later board a spaceship with others (and a caged Ursa) for going to a training site, but the spaceship unexpectedly crashes on the planet which is none other than the Earth. As the only survivors, Kitai and Cypher have to depend on each other; Kitai has to take a perilous journey through the mountain forest surrounding them instead of his injured father and retrieve an unbroken beacon for calling rescue team, and Cypher has to guide his son unprepared to this unforeseen circumstance while helping him overcome his fear and learn ghosting.
As the restored world from which the humans left 1,000 years ago, the Earth looks like, well, the Earth we know except few things. While the forest looks as big and green as those forests in South Central America region(did I mention that the movie was also shot in Costa Rica?), and the sights are pretty bland to say the least; there are a bunch of baboons and boars in the forest, and there are also many birds flying in the sky including a huge eagle, and none of them looks particularly exotic or alien. I hopefully expected big alligators or any other water animals to appear in the river, but, to my disappointment, the movie only presented small fish and one poisonous leech.
Stuck in such an uninteresting and uninspired background, the story is flat and pedestrian as it goes through predictable process, and that makes a more tepid experience for us. Will Smith and his son Jaden previously appeared together in “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) and they played together nicely in that film, but there is not much chemistry here in this film. Mired in bland dialogues and weak characterization, they try hard, but they fail to generate the required emotions inside the screen, and the frequent flashback involved with Kitai’s dead sister, played by Zoe Isabella Kravitz, does not help much either. I have forgotten to mention about a runaway Ursa lurking somewhere in the forest, but I do not think you will mind about that because it is no more than a plot device which does not work as well as intended.
The director M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote the screenplay with his co-writer Gary Whitta based on Will Smith’s idea, previously made “The Last Airbender”(2010), one of the worst cinematic disasters in 2010. I blatantly said my anoscopy was brighter than that awful film at that time and that movie indeed was less enjoyable than my anoscopy for many reasons, but I also remember that he made several good films such as “The Sixth Sense”(1999), “Unbreakable”(2000), and “Sign”(2002) before his recent quality descent. I am sort of glad that he does not hit the new bottom in “After Earth”, and I can only hope that he will rise again someday, though I felt like watching a sinking ship being risen momentarily and resuming its descent.
“After Earth” is a boring movie full of lost potentials, and the responsibility must go to Shyamalan, Smith, who produced the movie with his wife, and others behind the film. Few days before watching the film, I happened to read an interview article on how Smith and his family had a nice time together while shooting the film, and now that article takes me back to late Gene Siskel’s famous question my dear friend Roger Ebert used to quote: “Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?” If the home movie of the Smith family was shot during the production and is planned to be included in DVD or Blu-ray, I bet it will make a pretty good DVD supplement far better than the film itself.
The Sixth Sense was a film with with truly horrifying scenes. I wonder if he has done so good again.
SC: I have lots of doubt on that, too.