Wednesday, June 5, 2013

In Theaters: AFTER EARTH (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  Written by Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan.  Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Isabella Kravitz, Sophie Okonedo, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, David Denman.  (PG-13, 99 mins)

Opening to apocalyptically bad reviews despite Columbia keeping the involvement of Hollywood pariah M. Night Shyamalan as quiet as possible, AFTER EARTH is, yes, first and foremost, a Smith family vanity project.  There's two things going on here with the almost universal pre-release hate directed toward this film:  first, the Shyamalan factor.  Over the last few years, critics seem to be taking pleasure in the sinking of the director's career.  To his detriment, Shyamalan has made it very easy for them to resort to these rarely-reached levels of schadenfreude.  His hubris and his inflated ego made him an easy target, especially once the SIXTH SENSE novelty wore off and films like LADY IN THE WATER and THE HAPPENING started to torpedo his reputation.  Critics piled on THE LAST AIRBENDER to an absurd degree, but don't misunderstand me:  THE LAST AIRBENDER is not good, but it's nowhere near as awful as critics made it out to be.  At this point, it's almost expected for critics ranging from serious professionals all the way down to IMDb message board shut-ins to bag on anything Shyamalan does and that's probably not going to change.  Call him an asshole, a hack, a one-trick pony, whatever, but too many people are judging him and his past disappointments, and not the movie in question.  Hell, Michael Cimino bankrupted a studio and he never had this kind of abuse leveled at him.  Cimino made movies after HEAVEN'S GATE and the one-sheets still hyped his involvement.  At this point, Will Smith should be lauded just for having the courage to hire Shyamalan in the first place.

And speaking of Will Smith, particularly in his role as father to son Jaden, it's very unbecoming of professional, adult movie critics to take cheap shots at someone's kid.  Yes, Jaden Smith is a pampered Hollywood rich kid and he's kinda cocky and he's not nearly as charismatic as his dad, doesn't have the same screen presence, and isn't as good of an actor.   But he's still a kid and having said that, a 14-year-old kid, even if he's insanely wealthy and reaping the benefits of nepotism, shouldn't be the object of such pithy scorn and mean-spirited ridicule by people who should know better.  I'm not implying that kids who act should get a pat on the back and a pass.  Some child actors are terrible.  But there's a way to say that without sounding like an asshole.  Furthermore, while Jaden is guilty of the unpardonable sin of hanging out with Justin Bieber, it's not his fault that he was born to rich and famous parents.  I only say this because when it comes to people like Shyamalan, and now Jaden Smith, critics seem to be attacking the people personally, with unbridled and frankly disturbing glee and some of the reviews of AFTER EARTH, many almost certainly written in part before the critics even saw the movie, actually border on bullying.  Shyamalan probably has a thick enough skin by now and doesn't really care what critics think, but a 14-year-old kid is still a 14-year-old kid.  I've been guilty of sarcastic comments and cheap shots in print and on this blog, but what is it about Shyamalan and the young Smith that turned an alarming number of critics into the tampon-throwing bitches from the opening scene of CARRIE?  I say this not to mount some passionate defense of AFTER EARTH or the Smith family, but only to say that no, it's nowhere near as awful as critics would have you believe and perhaps they were more concerned with being snarky dicks and joining the cool kids in the pile-on rather than objectively looking at the film.

AFTER EARTH gets off to a rocky start with a confusing and clumsily rolled-out exposition involving Earth being declared uninhabitable after various catastrophes both natural and man-made, with humanity relocating to a distant galaxy on a planet called Nova Prime.  Over 1000 years later, the Ranger Corps regularly battle large reptilian creatures known as the Ursas, which hunt by sensing the fear in their enemy.  The Rangers, led by legendary war hero Gen. Cypher Raige (Will Smith), are experts in a technique called "ghosting," which masks their fear, allowing them to defeat the Ursas.  Cypher has been away in battle for several years, and is a largely absent figure at home, where his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) is raising their son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who was just rejected by the Rangers for his inability to follow orders and still blames himself for not stepping up several years earlier when his older sister Senshi (Zoe Isabella Kravitz) was killed by an Ursa.  Kitai was only nine years old, but he also feels that Cypher blames him as well.  Cypher has one last training mission before his retirement, and Faia convinces him that Kitai "doesn't need a commanding officer...he needs his father" and talks him into taking Kitai along as a way for the two to bond.  The ship is hit by an asteroid storm and breaks apart, crashing on Earth, which no longer supports human life for long periods as they've adapted over time to the atmosphere of Nova Prime.  Cypher and Kitai are the only survivors, and the distress beacon is with a part of the ship that landed 100 km in another direction.  Both of Cypher's legs are broken in the crash, and Kitai must travel on foot to retrieve the beacon.  Also making his journey difficult:  the high probability that an Ursa that was onboard the ship to be used as a "ghosting" training exercise has survived the crash may make things difficult for Kitai.

Shot in beautiful locations in areas like Costa Rica, Pennsylvania, and Utah by veteran David Cronenberg cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, AFTER EARTH looks great on a big screen.  The script, by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (THE BOOK OF ELI) with uncredited contributions from Stephen Gaghan (TRAFFIC, SYRIANA) and Mark Boal (THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY) was based on a story idea by Will Smith.  The film suffers from far too predictable character arcs and the absence of anything really innovative or surprising (there's no Shyamalan twist ending here), but it's an involving enough adventure and young Smith doesn't come off like the spoiled, talentless brat that internet mouth-breathers would have you believe.  It's nothing I'd watch a second time and I'm not saying it's a FIELD OF DREAMS-level man-weepie, but I wasn't bored and it's a nice movie for dads and younger sons to see together.  And honestly, if you want to talk Summer 2013 sci-fi flicks so far, I'd rank AFTER EARTH above STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. 

Yeah, I said it.

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