There was a time, not too long ago, when M. Night Shyamalan was a rising star in Hollywood as a writer and director. His breakthrough film, 1999’s The Sixth Sense earned him Oscar nominations for both directing and writing, while the film racked up another 4 nods. While he may not have been able to duplicate that success, Shyamalan’s next handful of films continued to show him as a master of suspense, and of course all ended with a signature plot twist. There is some debate over when he fell off the rails, but by 2008’s The Happening, less than 10 years after he was on top of the world, M. Night Shyamalan was trying to win back the audience who had once revered his talents. The phrase “an M. Night Shyamalan film” had gone from a seal of quality to a warning for the audience.
After Earth provided Shyamalan the ideal opportunity to prove himself again with a distraction even bigger than his infamous reputation — the on-screen duo of Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith. There have of course been on-screen appearances by fathers and sons, even playing their respective relations, such as Martin and Charlie Sheen in 1987’s Wall Street. However, while Martin Sheen may have been an established movie star, Will Smith is a pop star. After nearly 30 years in music, television, and movies, the senior Smith is not just known to movie fans, but to essentially all of our culture. So when his son chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps, it’s more than just an interesting piece of trivia — it is an attraction. And behind this veil of fascination and gossip, Shyamalan has the perfect opportunity to right his reputation without the pressure of being the center of attention.
I do feel that I must discuss the unique situation of Will and Jaden Smith acting together in a film where they are essentially the only active human characters. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but there is really not much to be said of their pairing, other than the fact that they do look very similar. However, as a primary character trait of Will’s character is a complete lack of fear, there isn’t much opportunity for added emotional connection, as he doesn’t really show any emotion beyond slight variations in concern for his soldier-son. After Earth continues our fascination with mega-stars living on an evacuated earth, after last month’s Oblivion with Tom Cruise. The simple plot has been laid out for us by trailers for the past several months, finding the Smiths crash-landed on a futuristic Earth where “everything has evolved to kill humans,” and it’s up to the junior Smith to trek across this dangerous terrain to find their MacGuffin, an emergency transmitter. It’s a tried and true formula, that thankfully isn’t tampered with too much. There are no glaring plot holes, no unfathomable jumps in logic, but just enough little ditches to keep the film from ever getting up to full steam.
Perhaps my biggest little plot hole is that there doesn’t seem to actually be that much wrong with Earth. The film vaguely explains that it simply was no longer inhabitable, presumably due to pollution and depleted resources. However, in the time that the humans have been gone, Earth seems to have recovered pretty well. The air quality is a bit poor, but if they can pull off interstellar travel, I’m sure they can do a little air filtration. And then there’s the line we’ve been hearing in the trailer for months, “everything has evolved to kill humans.” Actually, all of the animals seem to be pretty much the same. I’m sure if you confronted a group of baboons today, you’d get the same reaction Jaden gets thousands of years in the future. In fact, despite thousands of years of evolution, they still can’t even swim. The only new threat to the Smiths is an alien they were carrying on their ship that escaped following their crash. It was, however, a rather interesting threat.
Where After Earth does shine is through the suspense created by this alien who hunts humans not by sight, but by smelling out the pheromones released when a person experiences fear. While it may be a little hokey, the creature’s sixth sense (pun wholeheartedly intended) does succeed in creating suspense, while also giving Jaden an opportunity to grow, by learning to control his fear to hide from the creature — a skill known as “ghosting.” And while this exploration of fear, along with the dynamic of a son attempting to earn the respect of his father, is never explored at a very deep level, After Earth uses it as an opportunity to effectively fill out this elementary exploration of fundamental human emotions. Throughout it all, Shyamalan at last shows signs of returning to his roots of relatable family relationships framed with strong suspense and basic, but well crafted, scares.
Simply as a film, After Earth falls short in several areas, from production design where an interstellar spacecraft looks like what we’ll buy at REI in 500 years, to bizarre accents, to a litany of leaps in logic. However, what I find to be the more important thing to draw from the film is that a once talented and respected filmmaker has at last shown signs of returning to his once great form. M. Night Shyamalan should by no means expect to hear from Oscar anytime soon, but perhaps if we’re lucky, he will be back in that stratosphere sooner, rather than later.
My Rating: 2.5 Stars
In this feature, I will highlight a few trailers before each film that I see. While I know many people just consider them a nuisance before the movie they came to see, I’ve always been a bit of a trailer junkie. Please comment below and let me know what you’re looking forward to, and what you’re dreading.
Man Of Steel – Superman has been doing pretty much the same thing for nearly a century. Nothing can hurt him, except of course for Kryptonite. So Lex Luthor comes along and tries to get him with some Kryptonite, and then Superman uses his super-ness to foil the evil plan. But Man Of Steel actually has me interested. You know it will look cool with Zack Snyder behind the camera, but I think there might actually be some more behind this story than the usual tale of a bad guy trying to take down an invincible man.
Grown Ups 2 – Adam Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, seems to have some kind of goal to create the laziest movie ever made. This is illustrated perfectly in the trailer for Grown Ups 2, as half of the trailer is made up of footage from the first film, reminding us “wasn’t it funny when that little girl said ‘chocolate wasted?’” No, not really, but that won’t stop the gang from giving us another hour and a half of crotch shots, cheap gross-out gags, and fat jokes at the expense of Kevin James.
White House Down – Yes, this will be our second movie so far in 2013 about the White House getting destroyed, but this time by veteran White House destroyer Roland Emmerich. However, while this does seem to have the mass-destruction of recognizable landmarks you’ve come to expect from the director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, it also looks to be a bit of a buddy cop action-comedy between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and President Jamie Foxx. We’ll see how it all comes together, but this actually looks like it will be pretty fun for a movie where the US Capital gets set on fire.