After Earth: How Bad Is It?
I’m not counting Men In Black III because it’s a franchise, so I consider this to be Will Smith’s first true test in “coming back” after the movie that called into question his ability to carry movies anymore: Seven Pounds, which was in 2008. You couldn’t find a more bankable star before that movie came out. Almost everything he did was golden. He had a huge streak of box office success and then that movie hit, and suddenly, Will Smith apparently didn’t know what he needed to do to get back on top. And his future filmography reeks of desperation as sequels to I, Robot, Hancock, and Bad Boys are all sitting there apparently waiting.
And then you have M. Night Shyamalan. My God, I feel so sorry for this poor bastard. Bursting on the scene at 29 (yes, he’s only 42) he was the quintessential “next big thing” for Hollywood directors but now has a massive losing streak going that has turned him into an easy punchline. The director of The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender has erased the goodwill he started from The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and another movie I actually don’t like but was a huge hit, Signs. Still, despite all these punchline failures, The Village (based on the strength of his earlier work) and The Last Airbender (based on a rabid Avatar animated series fanbase) were still big enough hits that Shyamalan has been a bit bulletproof when it comes to the bottom line and getting new jobs. That didn’t stop Sony from making sure that at no point was this advertised as an “M. Night Shyamalan film,” however.
On to the picture itself, which is currently sitting at a predictable 13% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. One blurb says, “Could this be the worst movie of all time?” Let me tell you now: hell to the no. In fact, this blurb is so in-the-moment sensationalism that it can be disregarded as trolling. I understand Shyamalan has rubbed critics the wrong way in the past, and he’s come out with some outstandingly bad movies, but come on. Another one compares it to Battlefield: Earth. Seriously?
So I’m here to tell you “it’s not that bad,” but does that qualify as praise? I actually found this decently enjoyable overall, but critical mistakes are made that might make it understandable why it’s getting such bad reviews. Let’s dive in.
Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith, Will’s son) is a wannabe “ranger,” a part of a peacekeeping unit on a planet called Nova Prime, where Earthlings went after Earth was hit with catastrophes. His father Cypher (Will Smith) is a legendary ranger. One of the big dangers they face are aliens that can smell your fear. Controlling your fear means you become practically invisible to them, which is what Cypher can do and tries to teach others. Kitai and Cypher have a strained relationship: Cypher’s the overbearing dad, Kitai is the son who wants his father’s respect. Cypher and his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) are separated…strains in the relationship obviously from his attitude and an alien incident that happened with their daughter (Zoe Kravitz) long ago.
It’s decided that Kitai will accompany his father on a mission where one of these aliens is being transported across the galaxy for training–that whole controlling your fear thing. The ship runs into some trouble, however, and it crash lands on Earth, where humans haven’t been in a thousand years. Cypher ends up with two broken legs, and Kitai is the only other survivor. The whole story now revolves around the retrieval of a beacon that was on the tail end of the plane, which is now 100 km away and will require Kitai to navigate Earth on his own, with a potential alien out there ready to hunt him down. The trip will require not only survival skills but supplemental oxygen. Cypher will be able to talk to his son through some video telecommunications module.
What follows is like a long video telephone call between father and son, while the kid has to learn survival instincts on his own, constantly letting the father down with his “kidness.” And the son is defiant, he doesn’t seem to listen…it doesn’t look like he’s going to make it because he can’t think the right way. I found this aspect of the movie to be the most enjoyable: Kitai is not an action-star prodigy, seemingly knowing what to do immediately…he has to learn through mistakes…and get lucky.
What critics are hating is that Jaden Smith is not the charismatic actor his dad is (or was). But he’s 14. I think super harsh criticism, even when we see acting prodigies like Dakota Fanning and Chloe Grace Moretz come through the pipeline, is out-of-bounds for the most part. And so, the blame rests with Will Smith, who seems to always be there guiding his son through projects and practicing nepotism on an unhealthy level. One valid criticism also is that the movie is almost devoid of humor: which is something that you can find in almost every Big Willy Style movie.
And Jaden Smith shouldn’t have been asked to carry this movie for the most part. It would have been just as dire a situation if the “broken legs” could have been taken out of the plot and we could have seen Cypher do what he does best. And there could have been an awesome father-son action movie here, with Kitai still making the same mistakes he makes, but with Cypher there to guide him, and get frustrated with him. And even at the end, where Kitai starts learning things on his own, that still could have happened. But when you stick your main star in a wrecked ship for the whole movie, the film doesn’t come off quite kinetic.
I thought this was an average movie, and definitely could have been a lot better. But 13% is way too low, and it shows the prejudice critics have when coming into an M. Night Shyamalan movie these days. Shyamalan, by the way, does pretty well with this material, even though he too can be blamed for the way the plot unfolds (it’s debatable I guess, since Will Smith is probably calling a lot of the shots here). But the movie is shot well and at the very least, it doesn’t succumb to the rapid flash editing that we see in almost every action movie these days.
In other words, could have been worse, could have been better…it’s like most movies.
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