or JUST THE TWO OF US: THE MOVIE
When I kept seeing the trailer last summer, AFTER EARTH didn’t look so hot to me. It’s hard to have hopes for an M. Night Shyamalan joint these days, and also it got absolutely terrible reviews. I mean, it has an 11% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s lower than ALEX CROSS, R.I.P.D., THE SMURFS 2 or the joyfully pre-hated Paul Schrader/Lindsay Lohan collaboration THE CANYONS. But you know me, I watched it anyway and I’m not unhappy to tell you that it’s not bad.
Jaden “KARATE” KID Smith stars as Kitai, a talented young cadet in some futuristic military outfit, trying to make ranger, but he fails because he’s Too Reckless In the Field. There’s alot of pressure on him because his dad (played by real life dad Will Smith) is the Big Willy of the future, the warrior who saved the human race from giant alien bugs called ursas. This happened after humans polluted earth so bad they had to colonize a place called Nova Prime, then some other aliens invaded using the ursas as attack dogs. Ursas are blind but they can smell pheremones, and dad can chop them up completely unsmelled because he has no fear. This technique, Kitai explains in narration, is called “ghosting.” The only thing we have to not ghost is not ghosting itself.
So his dad is awesome, but I’m not gonna say what his name is because then you’ll never believe me that this is a decent movie. Okay, his name is Cypher Raige. But seriously guys.
Cypher Raige’s old lady convinces him that he’s a deadbeat and he needs to spend at least some time with his son instead of always being off somewhere being not afraid of bugs. I think she means to take some time off, but instead his solution is to assign Kitai to a mission on his ship with him.
One problem: the ship gets hit by asteroids (a total ripoff of the video game Asteroids) and crash lands on Earth, which was abandoned so long ago that it has been completely reclaimed by nature. The whole crew dies in the crash except dad, whose legs are busted, and Kitai, who’s gonna have to man up if they’re gonna get off this rock. According to dad, every species here has evolved to kill humans. That’s probly just some bullshit a dad named Cypher Raige would say to impress his son, but it is definitely true that there are lots of crazy animals here that attack the kid as soon as they see him.
The nice thing about the story is the simple straightforwardness. The tail separated from the ship, he has to get to it ’cause there’s a beacon in it. He can communicate with dad back on the ship, which is both helpful and a burden. He has to escape monkey attacks, travel with a limited number of inhalers that help him survive, and eventually face the fear-smelling ursa that escaped the ship. But how is he not gonna be scared of a monster when he’s scared to even tell his dad he broke a couple of the inhalers? As sure as Sean Boswell had to learn how to drift, Kitai Raige must learn how to ghost. He’s almost ready except he’s tormented by childhood memories of something that happened to his sister right in from of him, and he maybe blames himself, maybe thinks his pops blames him, maybe to a certain extent blames his pops for not being there. So he has some issues to come to terms with.
It’s also kinda nice that this is a teen genre movie minus the soap opera stuff. There’s no girl to try to impress here.
The technology on their ship and equipment is unique, kinda insect-based, machinery inspired by bee hives. But of course most of the movie takes place in nature. He travels through jungles, climbs mountains, glides off of cliffs. He faces various crazy evolved animals, all CG of course, pretty well done for the most part. I really like the relationship he develops with a giant condor/turkey type of bird. He tries to protect its nest from a pack of ligers (or tyenas?) but he fails, and you don’t know if Mama Bird’s gonna consider that a plus or a minus.
It turns out to be a more effective father-son retreat than the one they had planned. It’s kinda like a Survival Quest. The Spacerate Kid’s experiences in nature help him come to terms with his past, overcome fear, prove his abilities to his father and himself, and of course bond with his estranged father. It could not have worked out better for them, other than if all those people didn’t die, the ship didn’t get destroyed, dad didn’t break both his legs, they didn’t lose the ursa and if they had accomplished whatever their original mission was.
The story is credited to Will Smith. Pretty smart – a movie where his son gets to be an action star and he gets to sit down the whole time. If he didn’t film his whole part inside that giant trailer of his it’s a missed opportunity, ’cause he definitely has room in there.
Some would probly say this is a family vanity project, but the only problem with that would be if the family members weren’t up to their assigned tasks, and that is not the case. The Smiths (I’m talking about the stars of this movie here, not the mopey band all the women I know like) both do good work in this. They do a weird but subtle enough future accent. Weirdly enough I think it’s helpful because they’re forced to enunciate. Will loses his crutch of talking more “street” when he’s trying to be funny, plus he’s playing kind of a dick anyway, a cold, strict military guy who knows how to be commanding officer but not dad. And Jaden, who I thought was really charismatic in THE KARATE KID, gives an entirely different performance here, a sad kid trying to assert his manhood. They’re both very serious, and the occasional laughs come naturally out of the situations and not from mugging. (Example: Kitai’s wetsuit like armor starts to change color, for reasons unknown to him. In a panic he says, “My suit’s turned black. I like it, but I think it’s something bad!”)
It seems like alot of people have turned against Will Smith. He was the first Grammy winning rapper and then the sitcom star and then became a huge movie star and wasn’t he considered the #1 box office draw for a while? And maybe he got a little too full of himself when he declared the 4th of July “Big Willy Weekend,” both because our country’s independence is more important than most of his movie releases, and because one of those movies was WILD WILD WEST.
But he was still making big movies and seemed to be generally well-liked. Even I stuck by him despite hating some of his biggest hits like INDEPENDENCE DAY and the BAD BOYS pictures and not thinking MEN IN BLACK was all that great either. I AM LEGEND made money but nobody seems to like it as much as me, SEVEN POUNDS is weird and brilliant but nobody’s seen it, then he took some time off and then all he did was MEN IN BACK III before this one came out and tanked.
I’m sure he’ll come back box office wise, but his previous status of near universal likability seems to be gone. In my experience when his name is brought up these days you seem to get that same derisive scoffing as when you bring up Tom Cruise. This might not be a coincidence. I hear people make jokes about Smith being a Scientologist. Apparently the idea is based on
1. being friends with Tom Cruise (not sure why this doesn’t apply to all the other celebrities who are friends with Tom Cruise)
2. Saying in an interview one time that he liked studying different religions and Scientology had some good ideas in it
3. Giving some money to some Scientology-related groups, although he gave almost four times as much to Christian groups and also gave to Muslim and Jewish groups.
I will never get behind this weirdly accepted bashing of somebody for being in a religion (or in this case, for being associated with a religion). I don’t take the free stress test from the Scientologists or the pamphlets from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I sometimes take the comic books about going to hell, but only because I like the pictures. I don’t understand most religions but I don’t presume to judge them just as I wouldn’t want them to judge my own beliefs in finding philosophy in kung fu movies and that the ghost of Michael Jackson sometimes speaks to me through the medium of shuffling on my iPod. I don’t know about your country, but mine was supposed to be founded on the idea of religious freedom. And even if it wasn’t it would be a manner of etiquette.
If Will Smith used religious beliefs to persecute people or something then you could criticize him based on that. But he hasn’t done that (he’s come out in favor of marriage equality, for example). I see no evidence that he’s used any religion to be an asshole to anybody, which means that if you’re bringing up religion to attack him then you’re definitely the asshole in this one.
The bigotry is made even more insidious because the guy even says he’s not a Scientologist. I ask people why they care if Tom Cruise prays to space aliens or whatever, they say that Scientology takes advantage of regular people and uses the high profile celebrities to gain credibility. So they’re mad at Cruise for being a Scientology poster boy, but then they’re also mad at Smith for being an alleged secret Scientologist. I wonder if they’re gonna start asking for his birth certificate next.
This has become relevant because AFTER EARTH was widely accused of being Scientologist propaganda. Here’s an article from the Hollywood Reporter gathering some of these claims. Apparently there have been exhaustive studies of the movie’s similarities to Hubbard’s writings. At least from the summary in this article the reasons are asinine: it has an abandoned earth, they talk about fear being bad, there is a volcano in the background of one shot, the spaceship has a rudder (!!!), there are guys who wear white uniforms. If this is true we’re gonna have to rethink a whole lot of sci-fi movies. Not to mention VOLCANO with Tommy Lee Jones.
Jesus, are you fellas gonna sweep up Yoda in the Scientologist witch hunt? He had that line about fear leads to anger. And this “The Force” business does seem suspicious. What about Mr. Miyagi?
Daniel Larusso: I’m afraid! Let’s just get out of here! I just wanna go home!
Mr. Miyagi: No, get up! Get up! Must not! It’s OK to lose to opponent. Must not lose to fear!
Daniel Larusso: Yeah, well, I’m afraid! I’m afraid of him, all right? What do you want me to do?
Mr. Miyagi: HAI! You stay focused. Daniel-san, you best karate still inside you. Now time let out!
Other possible suspects:
Michael Jordan: “I know fear is an obstacle for some people, but it is an illusion to me . . . Failure always made me try harder next time.”
Bruce Lee: “Fear comes from uncertainty; we can eliminate the fear within us when we know ourselves better.
If Scientology really is about suppressing your fear to fight giant bugs then yes, that is in here. But who gives a shit? If it had characters following Buddhist philosophy or even the samurai code it would just be interesting, nobody would be offended, and rightly so. Movies are one modern way to share different perspectives and ideas, and maybe you motherfuckers need to ghost your fears about being exposed to different perspectives and ideas about giant bugs. I doubt this generic “get over your fears” business has jack shit to do with Scientology, but if it did why would that be so harmful? If their ideas are such bullshit why do you care if they show up in a spaceman movie?
My buddy Matt Lynch was the only person I heard say AFTER EARTH wasn’t bad, so I asked him if he thought it was just this religious-persecution-by-association business that made people want to overthrow the Fresh Prince. He thought maybe it was more to do with a sense of nepotism, this celebrity couple now having two kids that they have seemingly sort of manufactured into a movie star and a pop star.
Okay, that’s more fair, it is a little much to take. Sly Stallone didn’t give Sage the starring role in DAYLIGHT. But on the other hand as soon as Jaden showed up in movies the public could’ve GODFATHER IIId his ass, said mean things and forced him to come back years later as a brilliant and respected director of small indie films. That didn’t happen because the kid is kinda good onscreen. Also he knows Jackie Chan.
Oh well. I don’t think AFTER EARTH is a great movie, I wouldn’t go to war for it like maybe I would for that other hated movie of the summer, THE LONE RANGER. But I guess I just got a thing for fairness. I’m not gonna say you’re “bullying” an overdog like Will Smith, but it’s worth calling bullshit. I believe the harshness of those reviews is 100% based on external factors and not the actual movie. If you disagree then by all means go enjoy SMURFS 2 more than this again, pal. I won’t stop you.
I guess it’s fitting that I gotta compare this to a Tom Cruise movie. I think it’s pretty much on the level of OBLIVION. On the one hand, I think the subtext of OBLIVION, its commentary on the American Dream, is more interesting than AFTER EARTH’s overcoming-your-fear boilerplate. On the other hand I think AFTER EARTH has a more satisfying last chunk and doesn’t stretch its credibility with any plot twists, so in that sense it feels more solid. Anyway, neither is great but both are worth a watch and not worth the hate.
11%? I’m surprised at you people. I expect better. Be nice.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.