Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Kravitz, Sophie Okonedo
Plot: During a routine training run, Kitai (Jaden) and Cypher Raige (Will) crash land on the abandoned planet Earth, where everything has evolved to kill them.
Despite not expecting much from After-Earth, I must admit that the opening premise gripped me as the film opened up. We are introduced to a new Sci-Fi universe, where humans are fighting a war against aliens. The aliens (who we never actually see), fight the humans using monsters called the Ursa, bred to kill humans. They are a stunning creation. Blind and deaf, they need to track their prey by sensing their fear. They kill their enemies in the most gruesome way, so they can scare anyone who stumbles across one of their victims, therefore making themselves victims. Will Smith’s character, Cypher, invents a fighting style, known as Ghosting, where you remove fear completely from your mind, making you invisible to the Ursa, therefore making fighting them easy. It was a good backdrop to put the story against and somehow the fact that we were exploring the characters, rather than that universe, made the movie all the more gripping.
When the ship crash-lands on the remains of Earth, the film shakes itself up a bit. Almost all the characters are killed off and the only person able to save the day is Jaden Smith’s nervous character of Kitai. I am glad M. Night didn’t go for the route of several survivors, slowly getting killed off, like a knock-off Predator or Jurassic Park vehicle. What we do get is a narrative device akin to some sort of early video game. Kitai needs to get from point A to point B to release the distress beacon, with Will Smith’s wise mentor watching over him, giving him directions. Every night he must get to a hot-spot, as Earth freezes over (like a checkpoint) and he only has four vials of oxygen to make last. His suit even changes colour depending on his condition. At first, I was unsure of this decision, but he definitely helped make the stakes very clear, causing some exciting obstacles in the third act of the movie. This movie could also be one of the first films to actually lend itself to a video game tie-in.
I am not M. Night’s biggest fan, thinking that he has ruined several great premises with his need to throw a twist at the end of everything. However, I must begrudgingly admit that he does have a good eye for direction. There are certain shots that he squeezes the most emotion and tension out of. One particular moment shows Will Smith telling his son how he first killed an Ursa. Rather than jump to a flashback, as most directors wouldn’t be able to resist doing, the director relied on Will Smith’s impressive skill as an actor to get the drama across. It worked really well and didn’t ruin the reveal on the actual Ursa.
A lot of people have been criticising Jaden Smith for using his Dad’s fame as a shortcut to get to this leading role. However, I personally do not mind as long as he has the talent to pull it off. He kind of does. Give it time: M Night gives all of the characters an invented accent to work with, so it takes a while to kick in. He does a pretty good job, especially when he finally stands up to his father. Will Smith’s character is devoid of fear, meaning that Will Smith has to play it straight rather than flexing his acting muscles. He shows off in more subtle ways, like awkwardly connecting with his son. Most of the time, he is given the job of looking tough and he does it well. He is definitely the lead man when you need someone for your action blockbuster.
The scenery is probably the star of the show. M. Night gives us plenty of pretty backgrounds to look at, while Jaden does his thing: roaring rivers, beautiful mountains and a luscious forest. I was most intrigued at seeing the evolved animals. There are no major changes; they just look like they can kick your ass if they want to. And more often than not, they want to. There is a cheesy moment between Jaden and a giant eagle, but the kids will love it (in a bitter-sweet way). In fact, my biggest regret was that there weren’t more animals. I was kind of wanting less character development and an extra predator being thrown at Jaden. Hopefully, the potential for more doesn’t tempt Shyamalan into sequel territory.
Best of all: no terrible twist. The ‘this planet used to be Earth’ reveal is gotten out of the way pretty quick (in the trailers, in fact), so M. Night has to play that card early on. As a result, we are given a pretty standard yet enjoyable action flick (the movie is mostly Jaden fighting his way through a jungle). Sure, it probably won’t stick in your memory, when looking back on 2013, but when you are in that cinema, you will like what you see. Thankfully the showdown with the Ursa does not disappoint. That thing is terrifying.
On a closing note, as the film ends, we are treated to a shot of an ocean filled with whales, the sea creatures being a recurring theme thanks to Cypher’s love for the book ‘Moby Dick’. It is a small suggestion that maybe Earth is better off without humans. It’s a nice, little message, but, more importantly, it confirms the fact that M. Night finally understands subtlety. Yes!
Final verdict: Much better than I expected. Simple fun, exploring a rich landscape, and show-casing what could be the year’s best monster.