After Earth is a coming-of-age sci-fi film by Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan, which purports to be, in fact, a science fiction film. (Comment by my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk (blatant plug!) after about a half-hour into the film: “Is that what Scientology does to them?”) I hope that none of my (or Amazing’s) readers have been taken in by Scientology, because you will not find Kind Words or Thoughts about it in my blog entries, including this one. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith deny that they are still connected to that cult, though many believe they still have ties, and say also that this film espouses some of Scientology’s beliefs. Regardless of the truth of that, the honest truth is that this is a bad science fiction movie.
If you’ve been reading my columns, you’ll know that I don’t like “spoilers” in book or film reviews, preferring that my readers be allowed to read or see without too much foreknowledge of what’s to come. For many people, too much information “spoils” the enjoyment, and I keep this in mind when reviewing (which sometimes has a deleterious effect on the review, as I’m often constrained not to say why I have negative feelings about books, movies, actors or whatever because that would give too much away). That’s because I don’t regard myself as a Siskel or Ebert, giving a review from “on high” that will fix a film’s place in history; I know that others might like something I dislike or vice versa. But in the case of a Really Bad Movie (or book; mostly I review books I liked, but occasionally there’s a stinker I just have to trash) I throw the gloves off and happily violate my own rules. After Earth is just such a stinker.
If you’re under 30, you probably think of any departure from a mainstream movie, whether fantasy, horror or science fiction as “sci-fi,” a neologism made up by the late Forrest J Ackerman (back in the ‘50s) which was coined to resonate with “hi fi,” a neologism that found immediate impact in the market place. For the SF (science fiction) cognoscenti, “sci-fi” almost immediately became synonymous with Japanese “kaiju” rubber-suit and space movies, Roger Corman epics and the like, not gaining the acceptance that Forry had hoped for. (For about a decade, because he and I disagreed on the use and validity of the term, I used to receive envelopes from him every other month, stuffed with newspaper clippings, advertisements, and other “validations” of the use of “sci-fi” to refer to SF. He never really got it that they were being somewhat derogatory.) So now, rather than meaning SF, “sci-fi” is used by the mainstream—and many younger genre readers—to mean anything genre, and is rather more all-inclusive than Forry intended.
What Will Smith (who wrote the original story as a coming-of-age journey for his son, Jaden) and M. Night Shyamalan, who is known for surprise endings, didn’t know when they set out to make a sci-fi film is that real SF—even SF that requires the “willing suspension of disbelief”; for example, the recent “Kaiju” flick Pacific Rim—requires a certain scientific and logical rigour. (But you go into something like Pacific Rim, or Men in Black with no expectation of realistic SF; you’re leaving your brain at the door, so to speak.) The supplemental materials of After Earth contain a clip of Shyamalan saying that they (he, Will Smith and the rest of the crew) thought this movie out carefully because they wanted it to have “realism.” (Imagine a John Cleese voice for the next line: “Thought it out carefully? Realism? This is an ex–parrot!”)
Let’s go through the carefully thought-out plot of this movie and take a look. The movie begins with a bad voice-over by Jaden Smith’s character, Kitai Cypher, telling us that it’s now a thousand years later, and Earth used to be a paradise till we screwed it up. (Everyone in the film speaks in a sort of generic “southern” accent—the kind of accent used by people who can’t do a real southern [American] accent, which doesn’t help the voiceover; apparently that’s how everyone will speak in a thousand years.) Then in 2071, we were “evicted” by Mother Earth and all the nations got together and created the Ranger Corps and we all moved to our new planet, Beta Blocker. I mean Optimus Prime. I mean Beta Prime. Or maybe it was Nova Prime. (I hope our astronomers are looking right now, because they only have 58 years left to find this Beta planet before we’re kicked off the Earth.) Apparently, from the surface of of this planet you can see not only another planet which appears to be within airplane distance, but also a teeny-weeny moon between the two. Those things are never addressed in the movie or supplements/special features.
So we colonized Nova/Beta Prime only to find out it was already owned by someone else; and in a true spirit of interplanetary cooperation and friendship the aliens created these giant “Ursa” animals to kill us all. But to make it more interesting, apparently, they made Ursa blind; they/it (apparently Ursa is both an individual and a collective name) can find us only by the fear pheromones we give off. (Oddly enough, although there are shots of Ursa killing colonists, there are no shots of Ursa running into rocks, drowning in rivers, getting run over on highways, etc. Maybe it’s a selective blindness.)
For some reason, though it’s never mentioned, the colonists seem to have lost the ability to make guns and/or explosives and have only these wimpy little sword thingies called “Cutlasses,” which are made of fibres that extend and meld into different blade shapes on both ends depending on what buttons you press. So colonists die by the score until one special Ranger named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is able to kill Ursa by “ghosting” and slitting its throat. Because Cypher is the only man without fear (probably that stick up his behind keeps him from thinking about fear), he’s invisible to Ursa (“ghosting”) and can walk right up to it and snick! snack! Off with its head! So apparently he has to kill all the Ursa himself; that was never really explained. Anyhow, it’s years later, and humanity is more or less free of Ursa (although one was able to kill Kitai’s sister when he was younger; he was only spared because he hid under a plastic dome that held his “fear”-omones in.)
Humanity now grows their spaceships and lives with smart fabrics that turn wind and sun into electricity and stuff like that, but you’d never know half this stuff unless you watch the supplemental material. (Which few people will do, I’m guessing. Many people of my acquaintance were unable to finish watching the main movie, so why would they watch the special features?)
Anyway, Cypher has to do one last mission before he quits the Ranger Corps, and he takes Kitai with him, though the kid’s kind of a wimp: he failed Ranger training (he “collapsed” in the field—and he seems unable to do anything he’s told to do) and he has a bit of an attitude about his dad, who’s “never there” for him. But the spaceship runs into an “asteroid shower”—they can’t avoid it because their gravitons might cause the asteroids to follow the ship if they try to run—and their ship is forced to “travel,” which appears to mean go backwards through a sort of spacewarp, but some of the asteroid shower hits them anyway and follows them when they travel (presumably because of the loose gravitons), so they have to crash land on the nearest planet, which just happens to be Earth. Are you still with me? I swear this is taken almost verbatim from the movie. But one of the “organic” buttons (they’re tear-shaped instead of round, because the ship was “grown”) on the control panel blinks orange instead of yellow, so Will Smith pushes it and finds out that it’s a Class 1 quarantined planet and off limits, so he says they have to travel again, but he’s told the ship could “break apart any minute,” so they have to try to land, but the ship breaks apart and they crash. Fortunately for Kitai, his father has told him to get into his “life suit” and strap himself in; nobody else appears to have done that, so he’s almost the only person alive when the ship actually crashes and he loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he finds that his father’s still alive, but with two broken legs (“One’s pretty bad,” his father tells him, which later leads to Cypher doing some amateur surgery to install an “emergency arterial bypass” on himself), but Kitai manages to get his father into the control room; he gets out the emergency beacon, but it turns out to be broken.
“There’s another beacon in the tail section of the ship,” Cypher tells his kid, “but it’s a thousand kilometers away, and you’ll have to get it or we’ll both die.” He also tells Kitai that because it’s a Class 1 (or maybe it was 4, I got confused) planet, “every living thing on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” Maybe he mixed up Earth with Deathworld by Harry Harrison, because although Kitai was attacked by baboons (which are pretty agressive now—let alone with a thousand years of evolution behind them—they must by now be awesomely vicious!) and some kind of wolfish creature and had a tarantula on his hand, nothing actually hurts him and a giant bird of some kind saves his life. He also has to take this breathing fluid that coats his lungs and lets him concentrate the oxygen of this vicious anti-human planet, but two of these round fluid container things get broken and he has to make it there and back in only two days. Oh, and every night “the planet freezes over” and he has to make it to certain geothermal hotspots in order not to turn into a corpsicle. And the ship was transporting a captive Ursa to wherever they were going so it could be used for “training,” but it’s broken loose. Other than that, without humankind, the Earth appears to have reverted to a paradise of sorts; it’s verdant—grass, trees, ferns and other plants all over the place; there are giant flocks of birds and herds of buffalo.
Are you still with me? Because if the crap I have recited above isn’t enough to convince you that this movie stinks, nothing else I can say will do it. You know, and I know, that evolution doesn’t work that way; it takes more than a thousand years of deliberate breeding to cause changes in animals; if Earth were so polluted we had to leave it, we’d probably all die, because there’s no way in hell all the nations of Earth would agree to giving up their autonomy and merging their armed forces (even under threat of death); and if humans were gone for a thousand years the air—which appears to be sustaining all the animals okay, probably because of all the grass and trees and stuff—would be better, not unbreathable. (And to answer those who say we need the lung fluid because Earth people are adapted to a different planet now, I say “see the section on evolution.”) And if the “whole planet” froze every night, does that mean that night falls on the whole planet at the same time? Highly improbable, if not downright impossible. And how does all the frozen greenery come back every day? And the animals and birds?
“But it doesn’t matter, it’s just sci-fi!” I hear some of you cry. No, it’s supposed to be SF, not sci-fi, and SF is supposed to be logical and fact-based. So it does matter. Even if you take the SF (or sci-fi) part out and look at it from the viewpoint that it’s a coming-of-age story, where Kitai learns to conquer his fear—and thus, Ursa—and becomes a man and rescues himself and his father, then it still doesn’t work at all. I could go on and on about factual and/or scientific errors in this film, but after a while, it’s a waste of my time and yours. If you want sci-fi that’s fun, go watch something else. Like the other two films I’ve mentioned, which don’t pretend to be SF; they’re just fun offbeat genre films. Will Smith usually plays a likeable, somewhat goofy character, but not in this one—he’s a sombre stiff-faced (stick up his… you know) Ranger General; and Jaden Smith, though he tries hard and is very athletic, still can’t carry a movie on his own. He has two expressions: worried and scared—and you need more than those two for a film like this. He might be better after a few movies, but for now, he should be relegated to a secondary role. And After Earth should be relegated to the bargain bin at Wal-Mart.
As always, if you have anything to say about this column, you can register—if you haven’t already—and comment here on the Amazing Stories website, or you can comment on Facebook. Till next week, watch out for Ursa!