Editor’s Notes: After Earth opens in wide release tomorrow, May 31st.
It’s fascinating to chart the career path of M. Night Shyamalan. After bursting out of obscurity with the Plot Twist of the Century in The Sixth Sense (and earning huge box-office and six Oscar nominations to boot), his odd mix of dark, brooding style set against almost whimsical narrative backdrops became a brand all its own. Over the course of the ensuing decade, “M. Night Shyamalan’s” would be placed strategically over the titles of five more films, but rather than building a legacy, those five films functioned more to gradually tear down the mystique. With Unbreakable and Signs, many were clamoring for inevitable plot twists that just didn’t happen. When those audiences were given a plot twist in The Village, they were shocked more by its ridiculousness than any legitimate surprise factor. The most significant takeaway from Lady in the Water was that M. Night cast himself as The Writer Who Would Change History. And then, alas, The Happening happened, and that was all she wrote for the M. Night Shyamalan brand.
As it drones on from one mind-numbing set piece to the next, shrouding its Third Grade-level plot in the guise of an interminable faux mythology, one starts to miss the arch arrogance of the former M. Night brand…
Many predicted that the filmmaker would vanish into obscurity…and he has, though indirectly. We haven’t seen “M. Night Shyamalan’s” above any titles in five years. What we have seen is that the only way the filmmaker has sustained a career is to literally hide his name behind big-budget effects in kid-friendly wannabe-epics (The Last Airbender, anyone?). The latest such opus is After Earth, which reminded me a little bit of Battlefield Earth, with its pointless sci-fi plot, lugubrious themes of overstated self-actualization, and vaguely Scientologic philosophical leanings. As it drones on from one mind-numbing set piece to the next, shrouding its Third Grade-level plot in the guise of an interminable faux mythology, one starts to miss the arch arrogance of the former M. Night brand – it was every bit as grave and self-important, but at least the dude sort of owned it.
As it happens, After Earth isn’t M. Night’s brainchild, but rather…Will Smith’s. Yes, more entertaining than the film itself is the “Story by Will Smith” credit that is billed at film’s end. Smith’s story treatment probably consisted of a phone call to James Lassiter, his producer, saying “How about a sci-fi father-son bonding story starring me and Jaden? Let’s get a writer on it.” They did get a writer on it – in the form of Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta, whose draft was then re-written by The Writer Who Would Change History once he joined the project. Funny thing about M. Night writing someone else’s story is that it feels so empty and passionless, like a fill-in-the-blank operation where each blank was filled in with obligatory straight-faced dread.
That dread is applied to a tale of post-apocalyptic struggle…yes, another one, in a movie year with so many similar-themed stories that it seems Hollywood is fully expecting The End to arrive at any moment (my guess is that The Rapture will take place during next year’s Zadan and Meron Oscar sequel). Most similar to After Earth would be Oblivion, which certainly has its flaws, but its booming IMAX visuals, staggering effects, and buried themes of body and soul separation feel positively masterful in the wake of After Earth, which never needed to be a sci-fi film, nor did it need to be futuristic. The desire to include massive beasts and click-clacky aliens is the only reason After Earth wasn’t just called, like, Earth. Or Rise of the Son, which seems apt not only because the father (played by storymaster Will Smith) is conveniently sidelined with…a broken leg and his fraidy-cat son (played by the storymaster’s son, Jaden Smith) must scavenge an abandoned Earth 1,000 years after it became uninhabitable for human life, but also because it seems the elder Smith is attempting to pass the Big Summer Movie baton to his up-and-coming son.
The Smith family’s attempt to sustain Summer Domination over the generations is admirable in a creepy-arrogant kind of way, though it’s not a sound strategy, since Jaden doesn’t appear to be a good actor.
The Smith family’s attempt to sustain Summer Domination over the generations is admirable in a creepy-arrogant kind of way, though it’s not a sound strategy, since Jaden doesn’t appear to be a good actor. Although, to be fair, Will doesn’t appear to be a good actor in this film, either. And let’s face it: NO actor has been good in ANY Shyamalan film since Gibson and Phoenix in Signs. The guy who started his career by telling intimate stories about pained people in extraordinary scenarios now only seems to care about the scenarios, leaving his actors to function as outsized puppets. What hurts the younger Smith is that he’s never been permitted to engage his lighter side, jumping from one earnest drama to the next without turning on the charm he certainly must have genetically inherited. Will Smith became a star by engaging a charming cockiness. So far, Jaden Smith has only been permitted to run and fight and breathe heavily.
All this, and I haven’t even touched on the harsh soundstage lighting, the transparent CG environment, the Krofft-worthy practical effects, and the obvious digitized stage cues that spell out exactly what the audience needs to know (“Transmitter Not Functioning,” “Only Survivable Route”). But after the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of the M. Night brand, this is the kind of crap one has to shovel to keep working. Forget After Earth. This is After Career.
[notification type=”star”]20/100 ~ PAINFUL. After Earth ends, After Earth is probably the film they will play on a loop in hell.[/notification]