“Danger is Real. Fear is a Choice.”
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith
In the future, humanity has abandoned the ruin of Earth for the paradisical climes of Nova Prime. The evacuation was led by the United Ranger Corps, who later became the only line of defence against an alien aggressor who deployed as their first line of attack a breed of monsters that hunted humans by smelling their fear: the Ursa. To fight these creatures, the Prime Commander Cypher Raige (Smith) developed the ability to feel no fear, a technique known as ‘ghosting’.
After his son, Kitai (Smith) flunks Ranger school for no adequately explored reason beyond building drama, Raige’s wife, Faia (Sophie Okenodo), persuades him to take the boy with him while he trains Ranger recruits. There is an accident, however, and their transport ship crashes, killing everyone aboard who isn’t called Raige and damaging their emergency beacon. With Cypher critically injured, it falls to Kitai to overcome his self-doubt and the guilt over the death of his sister, Senshi (Zoe Kravitz), and prove his worth to himself and to his father by retrieving another beacon from the tail end of the ship and secure their escape from the deadly wilderness of the planet Earth.
What’s wrong with it?
Cypher Raige? I mean… Cypher Raige. Still, it’s just a name. It’s not as if the character is distant, mysterious and angry. Huh.
The United Ranger Corps Delta Air Service Command Ninja Spetznas Frogman Force seems determined to be all badass special forces in one, and as the sole and premier human military force of the unimaginably far-flung future naturally train to engage fear-scenting monsters in hand-to-hand ground combat with mimetic, double-ended swords.
We’re told by Kitai’s instructor that, despite being academically gifted and beating his father’s records in training, he falls apart in the field. Thus in one fell swoop, Kitai fails to advance to Ranger training and the film fails to show instead of telling.
Earth’s evironmental recovery has apparently involved an entire ecosystem evolving to look a lot like old Earth animals and plants, but with a collective mad on for humanity. Also, surely either oxygen levels have dropped despite the presence of huge numbers of trees, or Nova Prime has oxygen levels close to toxic for Earth’s to be lethaly slight.
The Ursa are techincally blind, but ‘see fear’ by scenting pheromones. Without a fear response, they can’t sense a human at all. Despite this, they are clearly able to sense and interact with other things, like their environment. Also, the Ursa which hunts Kitai can locate and engage him in water and wind, but is instantly unable to locate him, as if all of his pheromones instantly vapourise, leaving his body completely scentless.
Jaden Smith was lauded for his performances in the remakes of The Pursuit of Happiness (also with his father) and The Karate Kid, is frankly underwhelming, as indeed is his father. It’s like either they or Shyamalan or both couldn’t think pof a way to show lack of fear without taking out all of the other emotions as well.
The sin is mitigated by the fact that it is a two-hander, but there are basically no female characters in this film and Senshi in particular is shoved in the fridge to drive the plot for our male protagonists.
Shyamalan is apparently experimenting with dramatic mirroring, and using it like a bludgeon when it ought to be a scalpel.
What’s right with it?
The film’s visuals are pretty decent, and the Ursa suitably horrible.
Although bland, Smith and Smith are not terrible. They’re just delivering the kind of dialogue that would challenge any human.
How bad is it really?
Once upon a time, M. Night Shyamalan was the great hope of modern filmmaking. Remember that time, between The Sixth Sense and Signs, when the critics loved him and we all got super-psyched about his new films. Since Unbreakable, however, his work has been… polarising. For everyone who loved The Woman in the Water, there was someone who wasn’t convinced (full disclosure, haven’t seen it yet,) and for everyone who looked on The Last Airbender as a foul abomination that betrayed the spirit of the original animated series, there was someone who hated it as a straightforward cinematic failure (in fairness, there were also a fair few who liked it.)
After Earth was not the bomb that The Last Airbender was, but it is unlikely that the producers anticipated such a modest result from Smith, Shyamalan and Smith. As is the case with many of the director’s later works, it is a finely crafted piece of work with a notable deficit of soul behind the visuals. It’s the kind of film that you might get from someone who had very thoroughly studied a guide to how to make movies without every biting to the heart of storytelling. In plot terms, the whole thing plays like a video game, with the freezing nights and ‘geothermal hotspots’ particularly reminiscent of a semi-open world with save points.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Right at the end of the film, the relationship between the father and son leads thaws and there is a genuine moment when it feels real and vital.
What’s up with…?
- The condor? Kitai is pursued by a giant condor when he tries to base jump off a cliff as a shortcut. He winds up in the nest and defends the chicks from predators before escaping. The condor then follows him, and covers him at the cost of its own life when he can’t make shelter by dusk. Which… presumably leaves the chicks unprotected? Or something… I mean, I know it’s a whole Androclese and the Lion thing, but suicide… i don’t get it.
- The cutlass? A thousand years of space-faring technology and the soldiers of humanity bring a knife to a space battle
- Cypher Raige? I mean, really.
Production values – The film scores highly here. Shyamalan is a consumate craftsman. 4
Dialogue and performances – I really don’t know if it’s the writing or the performances, but something in the combination hits a flat note. a special shout out goes to Will Smith’s attempt to play a humourless badass, rather than his more typical charming badass or serious everyman. 15
Plot and execution – The plot is a series of set points in a line, with no real sense of story behind the sequence of events. There are ideas, but the whole has no heart behind it. 12
Randomness – The lack of focus in the storytelling brings a certain amount of randomness, and the names… 13
Waste of potential – There is basically no-one involved in this film of whom one can not reasonably expect better. 18