After Earth (2013)

2014 #69
M. Night Shyamalan | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

After EarthConceived by movie star Will Smith primarily as a vehicle for his wannabe-movie-star son, and helmed by auteur-apparently-turned-director-for-hire M. Night Shyamalan, After Earth is a far-future sci-fi actioner about a militaristic father and son who crash land on a long-abandoned Earth, which has evolved into a hostile environment from which they must try to escape, while also being hunted by an alien super-predator.

Much derided by critics and audiences on its release, After Earth is not a film without merit. There are some good ideas here, albeit undermined by frequent plot and logic holes, often stilted acting, and a chronic need to over-explain things. There’s nice design work, even if its plausibility is suspect, but bonus points for creating a far-future humanity that feels weird and suitably distant, rather than showing tech in a currently-fashionable style that we could almost make now if only there was the money.

In many respects, it feels only a decent re-write — and a decent child actor — away from being a properly good sci-fi action-adventure. But story and dialogue niggles abound; the kind of things that perhaps seemed fine from the inside of the filmmaking experience, but to a fresh pair of eyes — i.e. the audience’s — get in the way. And when we’re increasingly treated to deep, subtle drama on television, any movie or show that seeks to over explain every plot or emotional beat just seems childlike. Maybe that’s my own fault for watching too much quality programming of late? Maybe people who don’t enjoy Game of Thrones or Mad Men or The Americans (or one of the other increasingly-prevalent shows that don’t feel the need to spoonfeed everything) prefer things to be spelled out for them? I don’t know. I feel like I want better, though; I feel like I want the film to make me keep track of things, rather than repeatedly spell it out; Climate's changedI want to spot the neat callbacks and gradual character development for myself, not have the screenplay or direction screaming “look at the subtle thing we did! Wasn’t it subtle!”; I’d also quite like the film to set up some of its developments better, rather than charge ahead with “now he needs to fly — by-the-way, did we mention he can fly? No? Well, now he is.”

It also suffers from the blight of many a modern genre movie: too much CGI. Things like the monkeys and digital landscapes look like they could be from a film made five, maybe even ten, years ago. Why do filmmakers overreach themselves so? I guess it fundamentally doesn’t matter — we’ll always know they’re effects, however slickly made — but when you begin to notice that, and care that you’ve noticed, surely it’s taking you out of the world? The CGI isn’t all bad by any means — the future cityscape and Evil Alien Monster are pretty good — but the spaceship hangar, for instance, looks like an early-webseries-level virtual-set, so obviously dropped in via green screen that the actors may as well have retained green halos.

Will saw the reviews...Even with these faults, however, I mostly quite enjoyed After Earth. For all the complaints levelled at it, primarily centred around it being a vanity project for the Smiths, there’s actually good stuff buried here — given more intelligent development and a different cast, perhaps it could even have been a genre classic. It certainly isn’t that, but it’s not as bad as some say. And it’s definitely M. Night Shyamalan’s best film for years. Sadly, that’s not saying much, is it?

3 out of 5

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