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Will Smith’s (family’s) ego attacks the world: “After Earth”

June 3, 2013

new-after-earth-posterI’ve already chronicled the evolution of Will Smith’s ego into a sentient, malevolent force that visits misery such as Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness upon us. And, it should be noted, Smith seems to want us to understand this as well, given his completely unselfaware and totally asshole-ish reason for not taking the lead in Django Unchained—a role conceived with him in mind. Well, hey, great news! He’s now convinced that we need to love and adore his family as much as we venerate him. To that end, he’s brought us After Earth—a sci-fi Jack London tale that serves as a means for Smith to jam his obnoxious son Jaden in our faces while the Smith-Pinkett conglomerate’s accumulated egotism screams “HE IS THE SON OF THE CHOSEN ONE! LOVE HIM! LOVE HIM! BUILD GRAVEN IMAGES TO HIM! Seriously. If there was a scene in this movie where the two simply shouted this at the audience it would still be less egotistical and monkeynuts insane than anything they said in this interview.

Anyway, that’s the set up. Let’s get to the movie.

After Earth begins with a voiceover that sets up this world. It starts out okay—we left Earth a millennium ago because it was too polluted and set up someplace else, cool—but quickly gets dopely intricate and proves a long-held theory of mine: the more specific the VO, the worse the storytelling chops. In this one we move from the macro to the, uh, fuzzy in warp  speed. Seems there are aliens who don’t like us out there (who are they? Dunno, but they don’t have “Smith” in their names so it’s not important) who have loosed big CGI beasties to kill humans. These things can smell fear, but one man—one amazing, god among men—General Cypher Raige (Will Smith, and…bwahahahahahahaha!), learned he could turn his fear off. This technique is called “ghosting.” (Sigh) you’ll hear that a lot, so get used to it.

"You're awesomer!' "No, you're awesomer!" "No, you're awesomer!"

“You’re awesomer!’ “No, you’re awesomer!” “No, you’re awesomer!”

Okay, now we got that out of the way. Raige’s son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is an arrogant, rebellious little brat who is still reeling from the death of his sister at the hands of one of the fear-smellers. Raige decides to take the kid on a space trip someplace, but things go haywire when the ship crashes on Earth, killing everyone aboard but the, uh, Raiges. Cypher (ugh, do I have to keep typing this?) has broken both his legs, leaving it up to Kitai to make the 100 kilometer trek through the dangerous wilderness of a post-Humanity Earth to recover a beacon that will send an SOS.

Since (sigh) Cypher is immobile, Kitai has a technological doohickey which allows Cypher to monitor Kitai and keep in constant communication with him. Putting a clock on the whole matter is that 1) Cypher is bleeding out internally, 2) Kitai has only a limited number of ampules that allow him to breathe Earth air, and 3) one of those CGI beasties was on the ship and is now loose and tracking Kitai.

In broad strokes, the story works just fine. It’s lean, spare, and economical. Once the details get filled in, well, that’s where it goes off the rails.

Jesus. Donkeyhumping. Christ.

Jesus. Donkeyhumping. Christ.

Okay, first off our characters. Cypher is played less as fearless, and more like a totally emotionless mandroid. Seriously, Will Smith makes Leonard Nimoy’s Spock seem like late-period Al Pacino. This is especially problematic since the subplot is about the emotional bond between a father and a son. The whole things seems utterly unbelievable, since Will Smith barely registers any kind of a feeling, even when rigging a makeshift stent in his bad leg.

The other problem is Jaden Smith. He was an insufferable presence in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and he hasn’t gotten any better. Inexplicably, the movie (co-written by Will Smith) gives him a number of big emotional scenes he simply doesn’t have the chops for. He also seems to have trouble enunciating—he pronounces “sir” as “sooer.” I’m not sure if it’s his problem, or if the movie was shooting for some sort of future-accent (some of the other characters have weird diction, too, but it’s never consistent), but either way it undercuts an already wobbly performance by the guy carrying 70% of the movie.

"BEHOLD THE SON OF THE GOLDEN ONE! SACRIFICE YOUR FIRST BORN TO HIS MAGNIFICENCE!"

“BEHOLD THE SON OF THE GOLDEN ONE! SACRIFICE YOUR FIRST BORN TO HIS MAGNIFICENCE!”

On top of that, the effects on the movie are shockingly subpar for a $130 million movie. The beasts that inhabit Earth are hit-and-miss at best—some ferocious tiger-thingees are only a step up from your average Syfy offering. On top of that, the laws of nature on Earth make no natural sense. For example, every night the verdant forests of Earth freeze over, but every morning it thaws and they’re fresh and green as ever. Um…apparently our absence has made Earth magic.

But there’s more:

* Kitai survives the cold nights by finding “geothermic hot spots,” which, in one case, means sitting under a tree. Well, hey, no need to knock yourself out there, Mr. $130 million screenplay.

* Cypher has all sorts of aphorisms to impart to young Kitai which all sound like something Yoda would say if Yoda was a ‘70s cult leader. [UPDATE: Apparently, these are thinly-veiled Scientology maxims, so, you know, that explains that].

* Kitai is rescued by a giant vulture, which is, apparently, sentient enough to know he tried (unsuccessfully) to protect her chicks from the aforementioned CGI tiger-thingees. Seriously, a big bird rescues him and his name isn’t even Gandolf. What motherfuckery is this?

* Zoe Kravitz plays Kitai’s sister, whose death at the claws of a beastie is the wedge between he and Cypher. She’s such a winning presence I really wished she was the kid we were following for this movie.

"You wait here while I get the hell out of this movie."

“You wait here while I get the hell out of this movie.”

* Okay, “ghosting” makes no sense. You don’t turn of fear like it was Data’s emotion chip. People do heroic things despite the fear. That’s why they’re heroic.

* Kitai has a dream in which he asks his dead sister why she couldn’t ghost when she was attacked. I would have paid a lot of money if she just answered, “because ghosting is crap, Kitai! Dad’s just a sociopath!”

* There’s an exceedingly awkward scene near the beginning in which we’re (again) told how amazing Cypher is when an amputee struggles to his feet to salute him.

* Technology is magic in this movie. The beacon just zaps a ray into the solar system, which, apparently, can reach the fleet millions of light-years away in mere minutes.

* The future commandos use some kind of weapon that’s like a cross between a Transformer and a harpoon. Like the lightsaber, it really looks neat, but makes no sense. I mean, if these future-folk had brains enough to fight the CGI beasties with long-range weapons, like, say GUNS THAT EXIST TODAY, they wouldn’t need “ghosting.”

Yeah, good luck with the harpoon. I'll just be a mile away with my rocket-launcher...

Yeah, good luck with the harpoon. I’ll just be a mile away with my rocket-launcher…

* This film was directed by M. Night Shyamalan in full gun-for-hire mode. He’s a pretty competent action director.

* Seriously, you should the read the interview. It’s totally fucking insane.

Anyway, that’s After Earth. It’s already tanked at the box office, so you might not want to start building that pagan idol just yet.

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