After Earth: Promises so much, delivers so little

Before talking on After Earth, it would be insightful to know how this movie came to be. The story for the movie was conceived by Will Smith himself. It was then narrated to  screenwriter Gary Whitta (Book of Eli) who had the first screenplay written. Will Smith then contacted the director M. Night Shyamalan to take over the directing duties. It seems Shyamalan and Smith had been planning to collaborate for quite sometime and so Shyamalan  accepted. The screenplay was then further worked upon by Shyamalan and subsequently revised also by screenwriters Mark Boal (Hurt Locker) and Stephen Gaghan (Traffic). The film was to be produced by Will Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment, and due to its tie-up with Sony Pictures where the latter has the first right to choose to distribute the movies of Overbrook, Sony too got involved. After Earth was expected to be the beginning of a franchise. There were even books released such as After Earth: United Ranger Corps Survival Manual to add to the promotion of the movie. The reason I mention all this is so that one can understand there were a lot of efforts made in pre-production to turn After Earth into a spectacular sci-fi movie. Because after watching the movie, one would be left wondering whether anyone ever cared enough after all?
After Earth_Poster
After Earth begins with a brief explanation on the destruction of the planet Earth that forced the human race to settle in another galaxy. When the new planet was attacked by alien beings, The Ranger Corps, a peacekeeping force, manage to emerge victorious because of the ghosting technique discovered by the Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith), where one learns to suppress fear and thus becomes invisible to the aliens. Cypher’s son Kitai Raige (played by real-life son Jaden Smith) is also trying to become a Ranger but has failed to advance so far. His relationship with his father is a bit strained, and so to ease things, father and son go together on Cypher’s next voyage. During the space travel, the spaceship is forced to land on a quarantined planet, which is Earth. Cypher is injured in the crash landing and the way to survive is for Kitai to cover a 100-km journey to a beacon which is in a broken tail section that had been flung away. And so begins a mission for young Kitai to prove things to himself and his father and to bury his past ghosts.
After Earth_Jump Scene

It is an interesting story, one that has so much to offer when you consider the potential. In the backdrop of the science-fiction theme, the father-son relationship could be explored deeper, and Kitai’s journey to discover more of himself too. For great sci-fi films are not made by the grandeur of the visual effects, but by the depth of a story told in another time or another space altogether which makes the audience connect to the movie and at the same time experience the newness that the science fiction brings. After Earth had the story, but it never got the screenplay. Despite all those names that were mentioned earlier working on the script, the screenplay of After Earth is quite poor. The part of the movie until the crash landing is alarmingly boring, and that is quite a chunk of the runtime. The traits of the characters are thrust upon us rather than allowed to develop during the movie. And even the background score, despite being by James Newton Howard, is mediocre and does not do enough to enthuse. There are hardly any memorable dialogues, apart from the talk on ‘Fear’ that Cypher narrates to his son, and this too adds to the frustration of the weak screenplay.

After Earth_Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan has worked on someone else’s story for the first time, but even his previous The Last Airbender was not original material. That is saying something for a director who had started his career writing such wonderful stories as in The Sixth Sense and Signs, and then bringing them onto the big screen with crispness. Sony Pictures kept Shyamalan pretty much away from the movie trailers and promotions, pushing After Earth as a Will Smith movie. It is a fair strategy considering the fan reaction that is developing for Shyamalan after his movies are failing to live up to the reputation he once created for himself. But how much of the debacle of After Earth can be put on Shyamalan’s shoulders?  This should not have been a Shyamalan film to begin with. The movie required visual appeal, a bit of splendour in the background. But the camera positioning did not seem to do justice to the set locations. There were too many close-up shots, or shots from behind following Kitai, limiting the wide angle shots that could have given a sense of the surroundings the actor was in. The action sequences were again wasted, that is not Shyamalan’s forte. But one must acknowledge here the scene when Kitai jumps off a cliff and is then attacked by a condor mid-air. Splendid shot! Movie needed more of those, but alas, it wasn’t to be! A director is however the one who calls the shots on the sets, and Shyamalan seems to have called the wrong ones.

After Earth_Will Smith

As for the acting, the biggest disappointment of the movie is Will Smith himself. Will Smith, who I thought could do nothing wrong. Well, there is always a first time. Smith’s character was wooden, Smith’s acting was wooden. We remember Will Smith as a man of varying emotions, who can light up the screen with his style and panache, be it the inquisitive and blabbering agent inMen in Black, the struggling but determined father in Pursuit of Happyness, or even the lonely man in I Am Legend. What Smith cannot do is play a Schwarzenegger of Terminator. He should never have played this role, it could have suited many more, but not him. His affable smile was missed here!

After Earth_Jaden Smith

Jaden Smith had a tough ask to be the shining beacon for the movie. He does have his moments, manages to bring in more heart in the film which otherwise seemed pretty much extinguished. But he is not the finished product yet. He was lovable as the young kid in Pursuit of Happyness  and he surprised many by being the star of Karate Kid. But as the 15 year old grows, he would no longer be able to drive his movies through the ‘cute’ factor. After Earth though does not seem to be the platform to judge him, for it got things wrong on a lot of fronts and an actor shines better when things around him click too. These are still early days for Jaden Smith and as any great actor would tell him, you got to take the bumpy rides too in show biz! I would like to see him working on stronger projects, maybe stepping away from the protective custody of his father, allowing himself to learn his own lessons to mature as an actor.

And a final word on M. Night Shyamalan, a director who I have still not lost faith in. Please, go back to what you did best! Starting with a story where each of the elements had a meaning, building a screenplay where each shot added more to the whole story, and then directing this in your style where things were not rushed but panned out at a pace that kept the audience hooked. There was no need for grand visual effects, no need for large budgets. It was movie making at its purest best, a director and his actors pouring their hearts out. Go back to the drawing board, Mr. Shyamalan, and I’ll be eagerly awaiting your next movie!


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