The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


After Earth

According to movies this year, Earth is a pretty crummy place to live. Oblivion, After Earth, and Elysium are all about desolate futures where mankind has largely abandoned our fine planet. The first one was just okay, the last one won't be out until later this summer, and the one in the middle is the one we're going to talk about right now. Conceived by Will Smith as a vehicle for his son Jaden, After Earth is the cinematic equivalent of Rebecca Black's “Friday” - a parent-funded vanity project gone horribly wrong and thrust out into the world for the rest of us to not enjoy. It may also be the final nail in the coffin of director M. Night Shyamalan's career.

The movie begins with the obligatory voiceover narration explaining the premise. I won't bore you with it. The bottom line is that aliens took the planet over and everything evolved so as to be hostile to human life. Jaden Smith plays Kitai Raige, a young cadet who desperately wants to be a hero, just like his father Cypher (Will Smith). He gets a chance when the two are the only survivors of a starship crash. Stranded on the insanely dangerous Earth, Cypher is felled by two broken legs. Their only chance for survival is if Kitai can venture out and locate the emergency homing beacon that rests in the tail of the ship, wherever that may be. Along the way, he encounters danger at every turn, including a baboon attack. Oh, how I wish I had just made that last part up.

After Earth is ostensibly the story of how a young boy learns to overcome fear. That would be alright if there was even one thing about the movie that worked. I can think of no things that work. The first problem is Jaden Smith. He's very likable and charismatic playing a normal kid, but an action hero he is not. Without that credibility, Kitai becomes an utterly bland, uninteresting character. We never care whether he's in danger or not. Will Smith, on the other hand, is an action hero, yet After Earth keeps him out of the game, watching his son's movements on a computer screen and offering the occasional command. It certainly doesn't help matters that the elder Smith, usually such a vivacious onscreen presence, has chosen to deliver every line of dialogue in monotone. Nor does it help that everyone in the movie is required to speak in a weird, pseudo-European-by-way-of-the-American-South accent. If you don't find it completely distracting, you're a far more patient viewer than I am.

Of course, the Smiths are not the biggest hurdles After Earth fails to overcome. Shyamalan's direction is positively leaden. The film has zero dramatic thrust. It essentially ambles from one thing to the next, never building suspense, never escalating the peril. Kitai survives one threat, moves onto the next, moves onto the next again, and ninety minutes later, the picture ends. For an adventure film, the adventure is uncommonly flat and dispassionate. After Earth contains some of the logiest action scenes in recent memory. They barely raise your pulse. Of course, considering that the overall tone of the movie is somber and humorless, perhaps this should not come as a surprise.

Even the special effects are lousy. Everything looks cheap and artificial: the sets, the creatures, the starship, all of it. We live in an age where motion picture technology can create dazzlingly imaginative visuals. If a filmmaker can dream it up, an FX technician can put it on the screen. Consequently, the bar has been raised high for movies that utilize computer-generated effects. With Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and even The Great Gatsby currently delivering eye-popping visuals, it's nothing less than inexcusable that After Earth looks so unconvincing. Everything is ugly and derivative of other, more beloved screen adventures.

Watching After Earth, I couldn't help but think of John Travolta's massive 2000 dud Battlefield: Earth. Both are cruddy-looking wannabe science-fiction epics. Both are misguided passion projects of their stars. Both contain too much faux philosophical mumbo-jumbo that weighs down any potential entertainment value one might find. Perhaps most significantly, both are excruciating to watch. Will Smith will rebound. He's got a great track record. This is a real stumble, though. In terms of his career, After Earth makes Wild Wild West look like Independence Day.

( out of four)

After Earth is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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