Tuesday, December 3, 2013

After Earth (2013) - FilmReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

"Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist."

I can never quite understand Hollywood, or movie critics. So often we either have a spate of inventive and emotional films that receive poor reviews, or directors who go with the flow and hand us poorly-conceived reboots or sequels, which are given either mixed to positive reviews. Thankfully, "After Earth" is an inventive sentimental science fiction adventure focusing on father and son who crash on an earth abandoned for a millennium. Though not perhaps the most original premise - John Hillcoat's 2009 offering "The Road" succeeded in more dramatic fashion - there is still plenty of promise.

Following a worldwide cataclysmic event on Earth, mankind repopulated on a distant planet, Nova Prime. However, this new world became the target of an alien race known as the S'krell. Using blind predatory beasts called the Ursas as weapons, the S'krell intended to invade our new environment. The Ursas can sense fear, which allows them to hunt their prey. The Ranger Corps, led by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) struggle to overcome their enemy. Defeat looks certain until one fateful day when Cypher overcomes his fear during a close-to-death moment, only to realise that without the scent of fear the Ursas are unable to track their intended victim. The Rangers are later trained in this "ghosting" technique, and the balance of power is firmly on their side, leading to victory over their invaders.

During the war, sadly, Cypher's daughter is killed, leaving only a son, Kitai (played by Jaden Smith, real life son to Will Smith) and Faia, Cypher's wife (portrayed by Sophie Okonedo). It is clear that Kitai feels guilt for not protecting his older sister, feelings reflected by his father, who is close to retirement from the service. What follows is one final mission for the general and a chance to bond with his son, who accompanies him off world. Hit by an asteroid shower, their ship is forced to take immediate action, resulting in both ship and crew crash-landing on a quarantined Earth. After one-thousand years the indigenous wildlife has evolved, including the landscape. To make matters worse, one of the Ursas was being transported on the spacecraft at the time of the crash, now on the planet with them but perhaps still contained in its cage in the tail section of the ship, which broke off during atmospheric reentry...

Unable to activate a damaged emergency beacon from their present location, and with both of Cypher's legs broken, it is up to young Kitai to trek across land and locate the tail where he will find a backup beacon. The journey will take much courage and instinct. Kitai, though, was rejected from becoming a Ranger due to his reckless behaviour, so just how will he cope in what is effectively an alien environment?

Whatever your thoughts on director M. Night Shyamalan, he has worked with great actors on some wonderful screenplays. "The Sixth Sense" (1999) will always be one of my favourites, starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment. Regardless of the controversial Scientology and Nepotism allogations, I like "After Earth" very much. As for the teachings of Scientology, I know of such things but have never taken an interest in such beliefs; and the accusation of Nepotism is remarkably pointless as I found Jaden Smith to deliver a finer performance than some actors I could mention, including those who have been in the business for years and have made astonishing success out of it. Jaden, of course, had worked with his father once before, in the 2006 American biographical drama "The Pursuit of Happyness", and has starred alongside actors such as Jennifer Connelly and Jackie Chan.

For a movie that was heavily panned by critics, being described as "dull, ploddingly paced exercise in sentimental sci-fi", I cannot help but disagree. Perhaps the sentiment is a little dulled by the performances of both Smith and Smith, but these are military-minded characters whose focus relies heavily on honour and discipline, with emotion taking a back seat. There is much morality to be found here, with the core being that fear is of our own making, especially that which is yet to meet an imagined scenario. Fear plays the "What if" game, allowing ourselves to be overcome by something that may not happen, or at least not occur in the way we originally perceived. "Ghosting" is a means of accepting this, and controlling unwanted emotions. It is something that Kitai needs to learn...

The production is certainly a family affair, with Jada Pinkett Smith (Will Smith's wife and mother to Jaden) and Caleeb Pinkett (Jada's brother) producing, but is it fair to describe the enterprise as a "vanity" exercise? And though I do not criticize Jaden heavily, it is true that the protagonist of the story (Kitai) does lack charisma - such charm had always been evident in Will Smith's performances, whether he portrays Captain Steven Hiller combating aliens in "Independence Day" (1996) or Del Spooner facing a robotic revolt in "I, Robot" (2004). That aside, the scenario is believable and well-paced enough to work.

It is also welcome to see a sci-fi movie that isn't overwhelmed by CGI, relying instead on plot rather than a landslide of visual migraine, which sadly appears to be the thing these days. The effects employed are decent enough, with the design of the Ursas well realised and effective. There is even an emotional couple of scenes that had this reviewer frowning with sadness, following a death scene involving a giant condor. By the end of his journey, taking him to a volcano where he must activate the backup emergency beacon, it is inevitable that young Kitai must face his greatest of fears - and both his life and that of his fathers are at stake. A confrontation with the escaped monster...

Perhaps not the best film of 2013, nor one that will make much impact, but a nice watch if you are prepared to give it a chance and not expect too much. It is recommended that you rent the film, rather than buy. Though my review is positive, it is not a feature that I will revisit again for quite some time. Or perhaps try the novelisation of the film instead, which has been described as "better than the movie".

Purchase After Earth from the Store:
DVD - Blu-ray - Running time: 100 minutes