Scott, we just saw After Earth. Based on a story by Will Smith, starring his son Jaden Smith, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, does it stack up to other Summer blockbusters?
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
It will probably get lost in the shuffle of other high-quality summer hits, but there’s one thing to keep in mind about Will Smith — if there’s a Will, there’s a way.
Our story begins with a voice over – Earth was ravaged by Man’s gluttony and we were forced to leave the planet. Humans settled on planet Nova Prime in a distant solar system. But all was not easy for the settlers. Aliens (the Ursas) came and attacked the humans. They could sense a nearby human by the smell of fear. But one man, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), found that he could “Ghost” – hide from the Ursas by controlling his fear. Once the fear was controlled, he was invisible to the Ursas.
Cypher and his teenage son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), decide to go on a father-son interstellar trip but their spaceship is disabled by an asteroid storm. The two of them are the only survivors after the ship crash-lands on a quarantined planet rife with danger. Cypher’s legs are broken and so their only chance for rescue is for Kitai to walk 100 kilometers on his own to retrieve the ship’s rescue beacon.
After Earth is an action/adventure movie almost completely in the hands of young Jaden Smith. We follow Kitai as he fights his way through the futuristic jungle filled with animals who have evolved into human-killing beasts. He gets advice from his mentor-father through a comm-link. Will Smith, as the writer, has really done his homework. He has created a classic coming-of-age story. Kitai is a young man tormented by the death of his sister at the hands (pincers?) of an Ursa when he was very young. The only thing that saved him was that he hid in a bubble and the Ursa could not detect him. He carries the grief and guilt of that event with him.
You’re right, Greg, one’s opinion of this film rests almost entirely on one’s opinion of Jaden Smith’s performance here. My feeling during the first half of the film was that this young actor was in over his head. But his performance got stronger as his character in the movie got stronger. Was that good acting on his part, or was it improved acting over time? He’s an awkward teen, much like my stepson who’s the same age, and in his character I felt that tense awkwardness trying to blossom into greatness.
Once again, in this movie we have the familiar theme of a neglectful father trying to make things right, and a son who wants desperately to prove himself worthy to his dad. These are very deep archetypes in storytelling, and they are used effectively and powerfully in this film.
I noticed Jaden’s challenged acting in the first half of the film as well. He fared much better in the latter half of the film where he was running away from or fighting off beasts. Less acting and more action, I would say.
The movie has several problems among them being the premise that Earth’s flora and fauna would evolve in a short 1,000 years to be oversized man-killers. There are several times in the film where Will Smith’s character nearly turns to the screen and delivers a plot point. “If you don’t retrieve the signal from the tail of the ship we both will die. Do you understand me? Now say it back to me.” I think you get the idea. There was no subtlety in this film at all.
In many ways, After Earth is more a metaphor for Will Smith’s relationship with his son. I felt as if this movie was a training ground for Jaden where he could learn to follow in his father’s footsteps if only he could learn that “fear is not real.”
And speaking of fear, the science of fear was portrayed incorrectly here. Will Smith proclaims that “fear is a choice”, but psychologists know that fear is an involuntary response. Millions of years of evolution have ensured that human beings will be automatically frightened when they encounter creatures like lions, tigers, and ‘Ursas’. It’s wired into us. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is the decision to act despite the fear.
But we can forgive that little inaccuracy because in the movies the laws of nature often take a vacation. For that reason, Greg, I can overlook the hyper-evolutionary changes on Earth that you mention. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the story works. Because we pretty much know the ending of the movie before we’re half-way through the film, we have to look at the execution of the story to determine whether it’s a movie worth seeing. For me, the execution was solid. Not brilliant, but it had most of the elements of an effective hero story.
Scott, they call it “Science” Fiction for a reason. But I mostly agree with you, we can give license to the writer in the name of story.
After Earth is a pretty simple hero’s journey told by a first-time screenwriter. It is predictable and in many ways trite. I saw the film in IMAX and the outdoor scenes were breathtaking. The scene where young Kitai flies over a waterfall was amazing. There were times where I literally sat on the edge of my seat. The futuristic gadgetry was not as inspiring. For a classic tale set in the distant future but told without subtlety, I give After Earth 3 out of 5 Reels.
The hero story was well-structured and reminiscent of stories gone-by. Kitai, mentored by his father Cypher, grows from a fearful boy into a fearless young man. For a story with all the classic hero motifs, I give After Earth 4 of 5 Heroes.
After Earth is indeed a simple story reminiscent of so many fables and fairytales in which an ugly duckling undergoes a metamorphosis into a regal swan. The simplicity of the story is both its strength and its weakness, as we witness the familiar tale of a young boy’s development into a man but in a setting of lush exotic novelty. I was entertained by After Earth and I recommend it for families with teens. Like you, I also give it 3 Reels out of 5.
The hero story was impressive in this film. Kitai is mentored well by his heroic father, and he receives help on his journey from his deceased sister via flashbacks and from an unlikely source in the forest. We witness Kitai acquire a critically important missing piece to his personality, and the attainment of this missing quality punctuates the film’s climax. The movie earns 4 Heroes out of 5 from me as well.