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After Earth (2013)

The Pursuit of Crappyness

After Earth is M. Night Shyamalan's best film in a decade. The movie's problems are massive, but nothing in it is likely to boil the blood as much as Lady in the Water, The Happening, or The Last Airbender. Unfortunately, with another stinker on his hands, the once highly praised writer/director my not get a chance to show audiences that he's (sort of) back on track.

Where did things go wrong?

Following the back-to-back smash hits of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan was heralded as a visionary new filmmaker (in fact, he may have been the impetus for that awful cliche's entree into pop culture). "I see dead people" became a catch phrase phenomenon, and Unbreakable did the gritty, meta-superhero thing before anyone else. It was unthinkable, twelve years ago, that such an impressive creative force would one day become a cinematic laughingstock.

Then, Signs happened. Sure, it was a blockbuster success that Shyamalan devotees raved about at the time, but it was also the first sign that the creator's signature "twist endings" may have begun to tarnish. Despite Mel Gibson's kooky, spooky performance, few (including me) could stomach the idea of aliens invading Earth and then dying off in an afternoon--upon suddenly discovering that they're allergic to water.

After people saw The Village, two things became clear:

A) Shyamalan's ability to "wow" audiences with larger-than-life themes had buckled under the weight of his self-perceived cleverness.

B) The clever marketing and word-of-mouth buzz that fueled his films' repeat business were no longer able to sustain mediocre movies.

Shyamalan never got the memo, though--maybe because foreign box office and his massive early success were enough to shield him from progressively negative press and fan opinion.* But as his films got weirder and dumber, and his ego grew larger and more dangerous than any supernatural force he'd ever scripted, the name "M. Night Shyamalan" went from a sure-fire selling point to something marketing execs didn't even want to include on the posters for latest movie.

Which brings us, finally, to After Earth. I've taken up so much time with this quasi obituary because, frankly, there's not a lot to his latest feature. A thousand years into the future, mankind has abandoned its homeworld and sought refuge on a planet in another solar system. En route to a training mission, superstar ranger Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his young, hot-headed son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), find themselves stranded on Earth. Kitai must fight his way across miles of deadly environments and deadlier creatures--including the escaped pet of an evil alien race--in order to retrieve a distress beacon from the far-flung wreckage of their ship. Will he make it in time to save his critically injured father?

Like KFC's notorious Double Down, After Earth is a simple sandwich that's been loaded up with tons of superfluous, unhealthy garbage for no apparent reason. I could have very easily turned this into a List Review, and rattled off the numerous, hilarious ad-ons that Shyamalan and co-writer Gary Whitta (working from a story by the elder Smith) used to cloud a pretty compelling, futuristic man-versus-wild story--but that would be as pointless as the movie I'm here to review.

Aw, hell. Let's play for a minute (Spoilers):

1. The opening climate-crisis montage that describes why we had to leave Earth is composed of fairly recent footage. Are we to believe that mankind sets out for the stars in the next few years? Even if it's the next hundred, how did we find the time, resources, and unity of spirit to build a fleet of Next Generation-style spacecraft?

2. Kitai must fight all manner of plant, animal, and insect species that have "evolved to kill humans". How is this possible, since human beings haven't lived on Earth for a thousand years?

3. Kitai finds the beacon near an active volcano, but a blanket of smoke is jamming its signal. His father instructs him to get to the highest point possible--which happens to be at the top of the volcano. I'm no scientist, but After Earth's climax poses two really big problems: Kitai running up the side of an errupting volcano as if he were scaling a Gymboree rock wall,** and thinking (illogically but correctly, it turns out) that the best way to get better reception in a smoky environment is to go where there's more smoke.

We must also contend with Shyamalan's staple daddy issues and numerous flashbacks involving familial horrors. Kitai can't shake the memory of his sister, Senshi (Zoe Kravitz), who died protecting him from an alien attack years earlier. On top of that, Cypher is a real wet blanket of a father, always scowling, wincing, and correcting, like a Vulcan manscaping instructor.

And that's the first of this film's two big problems. After Earth is being pushed as a Will Smith movie, but none of the actor's trademark billion-dollar-box-office charm is on display here. He looks strained throughout most of his scenes, and not for character reasons. There's something eerie and unnatural about his working so hard to stifle his innate charisma.

This awkwardness carries over to his son, who I refuse to believe is such a bad performer. This is the caliber of awful that pounds nepotism to dust, and I have to believe (based on past performance) that the deadly dull acting on everyone's part is due to deliberate instructions from the other side of the camera? How else to explain the film's two jokes falling flat, or Jaden Smith's sure-to-be-Razzie-nominated mid-movie tantrum--delivered in the cast's signature, wavering accent that's sometimes Stoic Southern Drawl, and sometimes Jamaican Hall Monitor?

Nothing about the basic story calls for the Smiths to be anything but a normal father-and-son team who must face great adversity. Even if the tone had fallen in line with the fun adventure movies that made Will Smith famous, there'd still be plenty of room for serious themes about strained relationships and becomig a man (or whatever the hell Shyamalan wants so badly out of his system).

But the co-writer/director doesn't have any faith in the precious kernel of an idea that I'm sure After Earth started out as. Instead of amazing the audience with cool environments, interesting creatures, and a pulse-pounding race against the clock, they tacked on piece after piece of gaudy, ill-conceived backstory that falls apart after three seconds of thought. Which is a shame, because in the scenes where Kitai is on his own, facing down bizarre natural wonders, After Earth really comes to life.

The digital effects are top-notch, and the costuming is superb; faint praise for a $130 million movie, but I really had a great time absorbing what the visual artists put together. I had to avert my eyes on more than one occasion, though, because, like the starship problem, some of the aesthetic choices raised more difficult questions than I could process while also paying attention to the story.

In short, I probably would have loved After Earth if I'd seen it as a pre-teen. In parts, Shyamalan captures the classic feel of 1980s adventure movies that pushed the boundaries of child-appropriate material; there's real danger here, and some pretty graphic consequences for wrestling with Mother Nature. But I'm not a pre-teen, and this movie isn't being pushed as a family adventure. We're to believe that After Earth is legitimate science fiction. It lacks the brains and originality to qualify as either.

When I say that this is Shyamalan's best movie in a decade, please note that I do so sadly. I was really looking forward to After Earth and, aside from several pockets of hearty laughter, it's neither as fundamentally flawed nor as consistently hilarious as his last few films. Don't get me wrong: I don't like to see any filmmaker fail, but there's a certain Plan 9 giddines that stirs in me whenever I hear he's been granted yet another shot at redemption. It's selfish and cruel, I know, but part of me wants him to continue doing horribly, so as to cement his reputation as my generation's greatest comedic auteur.

Who knows? By next week, he may be lucky to get a gig directing traffic.

*Strangely enough, his career has been marred by only one bona fide flop: Lady in the Water. Yes, even The Happening was a global box office success.

**True, there's a similar journey in the third Lord of the Rings movie, but Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are fantasy creatures--not mere mortals like the Karate Kid here.

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