The performances in M. Night Shyamalan’s films have often had a stilted, solemn quality, and Will Smith’s performance in After Earth is no exception. There are a couple reasons for the woodenness this time, though.
First, the story is set in the distant future, a thousand years after humanity has fled the Earth — more on that in a moment — and it stands to reason that speech patterns might have changed in the interim. Indeed, according to co-writer Gary Whitta, the filmmakers “worked with a dialect coach to come up with an original accent, because the idea of the characters speaking with an American accent or a British accent one thousand years in the future, after you’ve left Earth, would seem kind of preposterous.”
One could also note, in response to Whitta’s argument, that it’s kind of preposterous that the language would have stayed the same for a thousand years — have you tried reading Shakespeare (400+ years ago) or Chaucer (600+ years ago) lately? — but still, the basic idea behind the accent is both plausible and interesting, and contributes to the sense that this film is taking place in another time, another place.
Indeed, if memory serves, the dialogue broke its spell only once, for me, when Will’s son Jaden — who has had to trek across hostile terrain ever since he and his father crash-landed on our planet — remarks in a particularly stressed-out moment that his situation “sucks”. That felt a tad too colloquial, though I could accept even that, on some level, as a sign of the awkwardness that the Jaden Smith character feels as he endures the series of physical trials that mark his coming of age.
The second reason for Will Smith’s sombre performance is the fact that his character is one of the elite in his society — a “ranger” who has mastered the art of feeling no fear when confronted by a certain alien monster that is blind but can follow people based on the pheromones they secrete when they are afraid. Will Smith has mastered the art of self-control to a fault, and wants his son to master it too, and if he seems a bit stiff and lacking in charisma as a result, then, well, so be it.
From a celebrity-politics point of view, there is a fair bit riding on After Earth. For one thing, it brings together two artists who have become renowned for their egos.
Will Smith’s last non-sequel, Seven Pounds, was critically lambasted for bearing traces of a “messiah complex” on Smith’s part, and he has since been mocked for revealing that he turned down the title role in Django Unchained because Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t make it more heroic just for him.
Similarly, Shyamalan is still smarting from the critical drubbing he got three movies ago, when he cast himself as not a messiah itself, per se, but a future messiah’s inspiration in The Lady in the Water. Shyamalan’s subsequent films have done okay at the box office, but the critics have kept right on slamming them — and that includes After Earth, which has a 13% Rotten Tomatoes rating as I write this.
The thing is, After Earth really isn’t all that bad. It’s not great, either, but I’d say it’s Shyamalan’s best film since the Bruce Willis days, and it actually has a number of things going for it, not the least of which is its relative modesty.
Emphasis on “relative”. The film does begin with the entire planet being depopulated, after all, which is a somewhat grandiose conceit — and all the more so because the film, after giving us real-world footage of environmental devastation, ignores both the messy politics that would accompany any evacuation scheme (where are the oppressive class structures of Elysium, or the rebels of Oblivion?) and the damage that these same humans would undoubtedly do to whatever planet they colonize in this one’s place. As far as the movie’s concerned, the world that awaits us after we leave this planet will be one in which technology does only good, not harm.
Even stranger, although we are told that humanity had to leave the Earth because it had become uninhabitable, the lifeforms that we see once the Smiths crash-land on our planet seem to be thriving rather well. They have certainly changed since humanity left the planet, but not that much, and certainly none of the plants or animals we see look like they are suffering all that much.
(Incidentally, the English language doesn’t change after a thousand years, but the plants and animals of this world do? Really? I suppose we could blame their accelerated evolution on all that human pollution, but still…)
But I digress. My point here is that, even within these grand premises, the film itself is actually a fairly small and personal affair — and that is all to the film’s credit.
For one thing, the film avoids some of the clichés endemic to this genre: there are no shots of ruined landmarks, for example. (Why should spaceships always crash-land near major urban centres?) And the score, by Shyamalan regular James Newton Howard, has a tender quality that emphasizes the father-son relationship as much as the interplanetary goings-on.
I also rather liked the production design, from the landscape behind Jaden’s early jog with his classmates, complete with nearby planet or large moon looming on the horizon, to the seemingly organic curvature of the floors and walls within the spaceship before it crashes; in this and other details, After Earth gives us a vision of the future that is just different enough from what we’ve seen before to be kind of interesting.
I also didn’t mind the frequent medical asides. (Shyamalan’s parents are doctors, and he has played doctors of one sort or another in a couple of his films.) As Jaden Smith makes his trek across jungles and rivers, looking for the other half of the crashed spaceship and the beacon inside that will summon the rescuers, Will Smith sits in his half of the crashed spaceship and takes care of his two broken legs — and the medical advice he receives from the medical computers seems reasonably well-informed.
A few plot points did puzzle me. There’s a bird that seems to attack Jaden as he swoops down a cliff in his wingsuit, but what the bird wants to do with Jaden is not particularly clear — especially in light of what happens after the attack. And the moment when Jaden finally confronts the alien monster — the moment when he finally mans up, as you know he must — seemed a little abrupt, to me.
I suppose I could also quibble with the film’s insistence that “fear is a choice”, which some critics have speculated might be some sort of latent Scientologist message. I have long taken the view that we cannot control our feelings, only our actions, and to the extent that the film suggests it is possible not to feel fear in the first place, I don’t buy into that message. Indeed, it is only because we feel fear that any of our actions can be considered brave. But self-control? I can certainly get behind that message, at least to a point. So I’m not going to quibble too much with that, here.
So, the film’s certainly not perfect, but it’s certainly not the disaster that some critics have made it out to be. (How Joe Morgenstern can call this “the worst movie ever made” when it isn’t even the worst Shyamalan movie ever made is beyond me.) And in a summer that has already seen such overblown, incoherent (and overpraised!) messes as Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness, it boggles the mind that something as merely mediocre as this would get trashed so thoroughly.