I think many would agree that M. Night Shyamalan’s films have been on a slow, but steady slide since The Sixth Sense. Naturally the liking or not of a movie is a matter of personal taste, but it appears that on average people agree with me. Behold the trend of scores from Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and the IMDB in the graphic in the below.
Now, I have not seen all of these movies, but I have seen several of them and, naturally, I saw After Earth the other day. Having noticed the slide long before I made the graphic, I was prepared for a less than great movie. With a low bar set, generally I’m less disappointed by a movie. Well, Mr. Shyamalan, your collaboration with Will Smith managed to lambada far under my expectation bar.
Now, if you’ve read my other commentary on movies (here and here) you know I can enjoy a bad movie. I can forgive terrible science – and really, if one can’t forgive bad science, one might as well never watch sci-fi movies or series. Mostly I need characters decent and likable enough that I care whether they live or not and a bit of something ‘cool’ about the movie. And ‘cool’ can be an interesting setting or premise or simply a warm-fuzzy ‘rah, we win!’ feeling at the end.
After fails to deliver an interesting setting or premise. Nor are the characters likable – in fact the whole movie would have been helped had the son died early on and we got Smith do an action role with a side of comedy. This is, after all, what we like him most for after all.
Absent likable characters or anything cool or interesting, we fall back to the rest of the movie: the plot, the setting, the science, the logic, and the effects. The effects are good enough, but nothing to write home about. The plot is simple: Will Smith’s character and his son (played, by the way, by his son) need to reconcile. It’s a basic coming-of-age with issues with a parent plot. Again, acceptable but unremarkable. However, the situations used to create plot points are contrived to the point of being painful. And, finally, the setting, science and logic are ridiculous.
So little thought has been put into them that they are insulting. The future a thousand years hence is so bland and similar to the present it boggles the mind to accept the lack of imagination and basic knowledge of current science that went into its creation. And even this I could accept if the movie had a sense of humor about it. But no, the movie takes itself seriously. Very seriously.
As mentioned, Will Smith played a part in this movie beyond that of an actor. He wrote the story (though not the screenplay). I will simply give this bit of advice to Mr. Smith, who I generally like and whose movies I have generally enjoyed: never write science fiction again, or if you do, never let Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan convert it into a screenplay.
In a fit of deep annoyance, I wrote out a detailed list of stupidities from this movie, but since it is on the long side, I’m going to bottom-line my opinion of this movie here and those who want to wade through the savage nit-picking can continue on to the list. Be aware that the list contains spoilers.
The Bottom Line
The scale of the laziness and clumsiness in the story and plot points is staggering. There is nothing smart or clever in this movie. It has no sense of humor. It does not even have the saving grace of being self-effacing or having likable characters.
The Savagery (for the detail-oriented or unhealthily curious)
As mentioned, after a sense of humor, decent or at least likable characters can make a bad movie enjoyable for me. There are only two characters of note in the movie, so let’s look at them.
Will Smith is the commander of the armed forces of humanity. Humanity has left Earth because we wrecked it but apparently other aliens in the galaxy don’t like us and we’re fighting them (or rather the critters they created to fight us – more on this later). You would think that with a name like Cypher Raige this movie was a spoof, but you would be wrong. We are to take this name seriously in this Very Serious Film.
Cypher Raige is an asshole. He’s not just stiff or awkward with a difficult time relating – that would have been understandable if predictable. He has the compassion of snot and a sociopathic parenting style. How does he treat his recently washed out of infantry school (because he goes to pieces under stress) son? Like a soldier in need of a severe dressing-down. Hard to imagine that this kid might have emotional issues with a father like that, eh?
The son, whose name is Kitai, is oh so emo. On top of the panic attacks he whines and pouts and, well, all the annoying stuff emo-y teens usually do. Granted, his father is such a jerk it is somewhat understandable, but his emo (emoism?) is so clumsy and obvious he evokes annoyance instead of sympathy.
So, there you have it, two unlikeable, tedious, two-dimensional characters. They are the only characters and the plot of the movie revolves only around them. If I find the characters unlikeable, it’s tough to appreciate the resolution of their interpersonal issues. And, since those issues are the focus of the plot, there’s no larger context to enjoy – saving others, for example. No warm-fuzzy from this movie, nope.
The Holey Plot
While appreciation of the characters and/or the ending of a movie wouldn’t stop me from criticizing bad science, continuity and other issues, it would at least gentle my approach. But absent that appreciation the gloves are off.
The movie is set a thousand years in the future. What has changed about humanity? Nothing. At all. Now, this in and of itself isn’t that bad as long as there’s some sort of explanation as to why the current trajectory of technology and knowledge isn’t followed to its logical conclusions. Absent this, one would expect significant use of advanced technology, benefits from genetic engineering, robotics, and so on. In particular, it’s difficult to imagine none of these being in place when humanity has apparently been at war since leaving earth, so several centuries. For better or worse, it’s historical fact that wars have spurred on some of our greatest innovations.
In this future bereft of futurity, Cypher, at his wife’s urging, takes Kitai on his last voyage (he’s retiring early because he’s such a family man, yup). The ship is also carrying one of the alien critters created to hunt humans. Yeah, you can see where this is headed, at least in rough terms.
An aside about the creatures is in order here. They are called ursas, despite a complete lack of resemblance to a bear. It’s blind but can track humans through their fear pheromones. Yes, pheromones – yawn. Apparently its alien designers were boneheads, because who the fuck designs a super-predator without eyes? They only thing I can think of is that the aliens don’t really want to kill humans, but just to mess with them and mock them for being such scaredy-cats. Anyhow, the upshot of this alien boneheadedness, is that if you can master your fear an ursa can’t track you. Now you know the reason for the movie’s tagline about fear being a choice. Not that it is, but why not abuse basic psychology alongside logic, physics, astronomy, zoology, and medicine?
Why was it on board? For training purposes. Because, one thousand years in the future, we fight dumb animals hand to hand not with drones or robots (who, by the way, I feel compelled to point out don’t feel fear). Anyhow, transporting for training implies a couple things. First, they transport them semi-regularly at least and thus ought to know how to do it well, and that they are on a known route since they would need to transport trainees back and forth. Keep these items in mind as you continue reading.
So they crash, but even that is done clumsily and with lots of pointless stupidity. First, they conjure up the dated and overused asteroid trope. In an effort to make it cool and hip, it’s not just an asteroid, but an /asteroid storm/. No, I have no idea how a bunch of rocks floating in space can ‘storm’. Also one might wonder how no one knew they were there, along a known route to another star system. It’s not like they are self-propelled and can travel around interstellar space after all. They’re ROCKS.
It gets worse (and stupider) . There’s a /mass explosion/. A what, you ask? Are the asteroids suddenly gaining mass? I… guess? None of it makes any sense and since there’s no elaboration on what these terms mean it adds nothing to the story but more confusion and stupidity. Anyhow, the ship is trashed by gobbledygook that makes the technobabble from any Trek movie or episode seem like real physics.
It probably goes without saying that the rest of the crew doesn’t survive, but for the sake of clarity: they don’t. The ursa breaks loose – shocker. How was it secured you ask? It’s just strapped in there like a wrecked car on the back of a tow truck. That’s right: one thousand years in the future, with the top military commander and his kid on board, they secure a creature whose raison d’être is killing humans with a few straps around a cage that looks like a giant coconut with some breathing holes. It’s not sedated, the cage is not made of a nearly indestructible alloy (or even just plain old steel!), it’s not in a stasis field. Seriously, my dog flew to Brazil more securely than this.
One thousand years in the future we ought to be able to track ships far better than we do now, right? Seems reasonable. Today, in general, we know where planes and large sailing ships are and when they go down. Well, just toss that sensible “ought” out into the asteroid storm. Never once is it mentioned that they will be rescued, that any sort of automatic signal goes off. They don’t even try to send a message before they crash (and they have ample time for this). The stupidity and laziness is insulting.
Also, of course, Cypher’s injured in the crash, both his legs are broken and his femoral artery is severed. For someone with an injury that kills within minutes, he holds out quite a while. Days in fact. Though at some point he, ahem, /splices/ the ends together with a plastic tube. We’re not shown how this was done or when though, which is probably for the best on various levels.
There is, however, a manually operated emergency beacon in the cockpit. It is found in an undamaged compartment, but is, nevertheless, broken. Sigh. My mobile phone is more durable than these things. There’s hope though. The tail section of the plane, where the ursa was, came off during the crash and there may be a functioning beacon there. It’s a couple day’s hike away.
In case you’re wondering if they did the painful and obvious thing of having them crash on Earth, but his fact is gratuitous instead of contributing to the story in any way. They did. Also, for some reason, despite plentiful plant and animal life and a complete lack of polluting humans, there’s not much oxygen in the air, so Kitai – but not the grievously injured Cypher – must use an oxygenating drug to breath. There really is no end to the stupid, clumsy plot points in this movie.
Kitai sets off, is attacked by baboons, ignores his father, panics, nearly dies from a leech bite, uses too much of his oxygenating drug, builds a fire in a cave that has live lava in it, and then jumps off a cliff. Sadly, he’s not committing suicide and ending the movie early, he’s being emo. Also, his suit has some membranes in it that should allow him to glide much of the rest of the way to the tail section. (It’s a very high cliff.) But, Mother Nature has other ideas. Or at least Smith and Shyamalan insult her by attacking Kitai with a condor. Why a condor, a scavenger, would do this is not clear. But, never one to avoid a chance to pile on the stupidity, the movie does so. Condors are big birds, with a 2.5 meter (8 feet) wingspan or larger. Still, they’re birds, they don’t weigh that much, 12 kg (25 pounds) at most. There’s no way in hell a 12 kg bird, or even one twice that size (and this condor was not that big) can carry a teenage boy who might weigh 50 kg (110lbs) or more. And yet, it does.
It takes him back to her nest. Why would she do this? He’s huge, so even if it was some rip-off of the ‘train my young to hunt’ thing from Jurassic Park 2 (never mind that condors are scavengers), she’s going to pick something the fledglings can easily kill. If it was for food, she would have killed him, eaten some of him, and then regurgitated the meat for the kids. There is no way this makes any sense at all. Feel free to feel insulted again.
Puzzling over the inexplicable physics and zoological defying behavior of mama condor is broken when some saber-toothed-looking cats attack the nest. Kitai fights them off with the help of mama condor and then escapes. Later he almost freezes to death in a subtropical forest (sigh) and the condor saves him but sacrifices herself in the process. Presumably, her young will now perish, which pretty much nullifies her reason for liking him in the first place. Good job, Kitai, you killed a condor family. Anyone who still likes Kitai at this point should seek help.
Finally he reaches the site of the crash, which looks like it’s been toilet papered. The ursa coconut is busted open and there’s no dead ursa about, so the fact we all already knew is bludgeoned into us. Thanks for removing any risk of tension there. Kitai finds more oxygenating juju and a working beacon. However, the beacon, which is designed to work across interstellar distances (and thus is not using conventional radio or other electromagnetic signals) has no signal because of a storm. But wait, it’s more like a dumb ‘my mobile phone has no signal’ scene in a modern-set movie than you think. He starts waving it around in the air, but no luck. He climbs up a hill – yep, being a little higher helps a lot when sending faster than light signals into outer space – but, yeah, the ursa finally shows up. The kid who was terrified of baboons a day ago remembers his dad saying fear isn’t real (take that, psychology!), decides not to be afraid of the ursa, and kills it. Also, there are some untense moments when the beacon almost gets stepped on.
He picks up the beacon, holds it up high and, voila, it works. He and his dad live happily ever after, but no one cares.
What’s sad about this review is there’s more stupid stuff that I left out. I have the notes to prove it, but this review is too long already and I think you get the gist of it: the movie is as unendingly dumb and poorly scripted as any 100 minutes could be. I could not care less about Cypher or Kitai or the possible mending of their dysfunctional relationship.
As a final note, I have not seen the worst-rated Shyamalan, The Last Airbender, but I am now scared of how bad it must be for all three sites to have rated it lower than After. Yikes.