SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'AFTER EARTH' (2013) ~ Jaden Smith goes silent running for Dad on a hostile Earth, in this refreshingly oddball father and son sci-fi . . .

 * Beware sabre-toothed plot spoilers below ~ watch before reading! *

There's a great deal of space effluence in the hyperspace that comes with this thoroughly enjoyable, and authentically thoughtful, Will Smith home-brew of a sci-fi movie - 'After Earth'.

You may, however, have read numerous judgements that follow a familiar cruel trajectory on this one, listing the following players as guilty of crimes against filmmaking. The sharpest barbs go something like this:

Director - M. Night Shyamalan: He was a great director once, especially The Sixth Sense (1999) but all his films since have been arty malarky and mad, especially the Mark Wahlberg-starring The Happening in 2008 which featured killer wind or something.

Will and Jaden Smith: After Earth is purely a vanity project for Hollywood golden boy Will Smith and his less golden (more cheap tin) son - Jaden. The entire film is mainly about the adventures of Jaden. Therefore Daddy got him the gig and he doesn't deserve it, as he can't act.

Scientology: The story of After Earth; about bravery, refusing to fear but to be aware of danger, mythical beasts, father and son bonding and survival, the future of humankind after we screw our own planet, spaceships crashing on active volcanoes, facing up to traumatic past events, finding new and better futures - is all Scientology (a religion started by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard that gained pace in the 50s) effluence worked into a brainwashing script by Will Smith (an often rumoured - but denied by Smith - member of the Church) and so invalidating the entire project. Scientology itself has derided the connection being made between the film and its teachings as "silly nonsense" (referring to the connection being made - not to the film . . hopefully!). The story of After Earth comes from Will Smith but there's also a screenplay credit for Shyamalan - so expect total oddness whatever.

Moby Dick: The legless Captain Ahab VS revengeful great white whale story from Herman Melville gets retold as sci-fi fable - as symbolically blatant as the copy of the book itself in the movie that's shown being read and discussed, a lot.

The Moby Dick riffing of course, is blatant. But hey - even the likes of Jaws: The Revenge (1987) and Orca (1977) took this literary-stealing route, and it's probably better the characters read a copy of the Herman Melville classic in this movie than something by L. Ron Hubbard as that would really get the cynics bleating! Hang on, was Herman the founder of a religion too? Is the great whale really a god - its death symbolic of humankind's greed and appetite for destruction? If not, it should be. Of course, I was always on the side of the whale . .

Anyway, swap whale for bloodthirsty bone-crushing monster and Captain Ahab for a sulky teen and you've got the crux of After Earth. 

Fast forward to the plot: and it's a thousand years into the future. Humans have been hounded off home planet Earth to a new place to ruin - Nova Prime. Earth has reverted to every trick it can think of to stop humans ever coming back: poisonous atmosphere, giant beasties, severe cold with occasional hotspots, active volcanoes all over the place and poisonous blobby things that cling to your skin (Mother Earth is such a bitch!).

Nova Prime seemed like the next best alternative to Earth, but it has its problems in the shape of an aggressively proud race of aliens called the Skrel that inhabited the planet long before we turned up and took over. These aliens are culled, following a wave of attacks against us, by a supreme team of heroic types (1,000 handpicked specialists including tacticians, pilots and soldiers) called the United Ranger Corps.
Will Smith's Cypher Raige is Commander General of the Rangers and one of those trained to combat the Skrel, mostly by slitting their throats with new age sabres. As to why swords have replaced guns as the weapon of choice in the future, maybe a return to fighting with instinct and the sword becoming a part of your identity - your 'id', seems possible but it's never stated. But hey; it worked for George Lucas and lightsabers!

The Skrell (who, to be fair, kind of deserve to eradicate the human vermin who have infested their planet - I mean; look what these idiots did to Earth) unleash their latest weapon; the Ursa, who prey on the human pheromone of fear. Only a few soldiers are able to fight the Ursa; those who have mastered the art of 'ghosting' - to be free of fear but still wary of danger (you know, there is a difference!) as this renders you invisible to the creatures who can only smell the scent of your terror (or whatever it is you have in your pants after meeting one of them). You remember how I said I was always on the side of the whale . . go Ursa!

The problem with General Raige is that he's a great soldier but not so hot as a father. A bit like Steve Martin was a great baseball coach in Cheaper by the Dozen - but he sucked at parenthood. In fact, Raige would probably rather cosy up to an Ursa than his own son; Kitai (Jaden Smith). This has something to do with Kitai being stuck as a Ranger Cadet and not really getting past first army base and, most of all - not saving his sister, Senshi Rage from an Ursa attack when he was a little boy (now that's pressure).

Senshi is played by charismatic, hip young thing Zoe Kravitz, daughter of rock god Lenny and actress Lisa (Anger Heart) Bonet. I'm looking forward to seeing Zoe in 'Mad Max: Thunder Road' as the character of 'Toast' next year but she is rather wasted in After Earth, in what's no more than a cameo role.

You may also be relieved to know that General Raige doesn't have any other children, especially not one called 'Road' - oh, but if only!

To try and get father and son to bond, Mrs Raige (Sophie Okonedo as Faia) suggests the two go on a space cruise together - she was right, it doesn't get much better for bonding when you end up in a spaceship ripped apart by an asteroid storm (a smart touch - literally - has the General detect the approaching storm in advance by sensing vibration on the ship's hull) and crash down on a forbidden, hostile Planet Earth; father and son being the only two survivors. What are the chances. . ?

It's now up to young Kitai to brave the harsh landscape to find a distress beacon from another part of ship that broke away and crashed, helpfully - halfway up an active volcano. Dad has suffered not one - but two broken legs (though to be fair looks more like he's suffering from a nasty case of indigestion a lot of the time) and has to stay behind in the wrecked craft looking bored while his son gets to wear the super-sensory combat suit with added magic sabre and do the action stuff.

You know it's not going to be a stroll in the park - there are no humans left on Earth because the planet literally doesn't likes us anymore and does everything it can to make the place as inhospitable and as unwelcoming as a holiday package deal to a half-built resort in the middle of a war zone. Or Butlins, if you live in the UK and are reading this (but seriously - that's not serious; we all love Butlins over here; in fact one of my favourite movies is Confessions from a Holiday Camp, I'll have you know!). Anyway, back to the plot . .

13-year-old Kitai has to fight off sabre-tooth tigers, giant swooping eagles (and other creatures that used to live on the planet before we eradicated them - like vicious baboons and those poisonous blobby things I mentioned earlier that cling to the skin and sting it with deadly venom) on his way up the mountain to send a signal for help. If that wasn't enough - there was an Ursa in a cage on board the doomed flight; and the cage is in the second crashed half of the spaceship. And guess what? The unbreakable cage has broken open - the beast is loose. It's flesh-eating, fear-feeding giant monster VS moody teenager in a fight to the death, the whole of Earth their own private battlefield. I don't know about you - but the concept works for me!

The story of After Earth comes straight from the clearly demented mind of star Will Smith who also co-produces and, it seems, directs quite a lot of the movie as well  with M. Night Shyamalan apparently concentrating more on the striking visuals of old/ new Earth (much of which was filmed in the stunning Arenal Volcano National Park in Costa Rica) and helping with camera-placing for Smith to direct the action sequences involving his son.

This is still Shyamalan's distinctively beautifully kooky, off-kilter trademark of a film though - with the usual natural order (as is usual in a Shyamalan flick) both threatened and questioned all the way through. It's a return to form for the director following the slightly boring The Last Airbender (2010) and whose next project: the thrilling-sounding Twin Peaks-like TV drama 'Wayward Pines' (based on a series of cult novels) is already cranking up the anticipation. There's also a Bruce Willis movie, 'Labor of Love' with more 'pining'; this time a widower's, for his late wife - and a road trip to prove it. Star and director last worked together in 2000's Unbreakable.

The story of After Earth was envisaged as a franchise. As well as an extensive background in the form of a handbook - 'United Ranger Corps Survival Manual', fully detailing the After Earth universe, there's also a series of linking novels and graphic books from various authors published to further expand the complex story ideas.  


The action sequences in After Earth are not typical for a big budget sci-fi star vehicle. In fact, some adventures - Jaden Smith stuck in a giant eagle's nest surrounded by hatching eggs and protecting the nest from a sabre-toothed threat are more surreal and fantastical than the possibly more expected shoot-it-in-the-face-and-run kind of fun which most mainstream sci-fi ends up going with (hey - 'Gravity' excluded!) There's a Star Wars-style alien involved in the mix, sure - with a familiar climactic fight to the death by the end too, but it all veers more towards Paul Verhoeven's original Starship Troopers (1997) trick of seeing the action from both sides; from both military and monster perspective - leaving you unsure as to which force is the greater evil.
Tense fights for survival for young Kitai include: a race against the odds to survive against a poisonous bite spreading toxin in real time through the terrified boy's bloodstream (and failing to find the strength to administer the antidote that his father is trying to communicate with him to inject straight into his heart) and that creates genuine panic in everyone - or the constant struggle to breathe in a toxic atmosphere without the single-dose inhalers that Kitai has to carry with him and which has a decent payoff when they start to run out. The unusual concept of life-threatening sudden temperature drops (sudden - as in minutes) and subsequent race to find one of the planet's scattered 'warm spots' to survive in, is also a pleasingly original threat.

The cinematography of nature in overdrive entices - forests are left free to explode with life, looking much like the few remaining remote areas in Britain that we have left today; quietly classified as ancient woodland and that have never altered since the day they first started to grow. Like the destruction of the Rainforests; humans are still the natural world's greatest eradicator. After Earth puts forward the suggestion - what if the planet's natural landscape developed a better defence mechanism, and used it against us?

Even the rocky, inhospitable, lava-strewn panoramas in the movie have a sedate beauty; in the same way the idea that fear is only valid if we allow it to be felt - the inhospitable landscape is also only to be feared if we decide to fear it. Without humans around; the planet Earth abounds with beauty and life - only warding away those it no longer needs in the same way the alien species on Nova Prime wish to be left in peace; their fear and fighting back against us rendered as aggression and threat by the humans who wish to colonise and rule. 


Will Smith is in fine, against-type form as an aggressive father and staunch, obsessive military man; a life led by the rulebook. But it's Jaden Smith who steals the show with a sullen and downbeat, reluctant strength that is refreshing to watch and goes against the Hollywood norm - teenage hormones whipped into inner strength one moment then smothered in self-defeating turmoil and doubt the next. The sullen mood energises the movie and is perfectly tagged with the naturalistic tone of the threat encountered. How Jaden Smith fares with that kind of nonchalance outside of a movie that cries out for it, will be interesting to find out.

The final confrontation between boy and beast is a nail-chewing moment; teetering on the edge of a precipice that could go either way - the idea that life holds so many moments of split second, life-changing moments is impressive, even when the CGI isn't.
After Earth is an often exciting movie; beautifully shot, full of strange and surreal overtones - and some pretty nifty, enemy-detecting, colour-changing body suits to boot! There are some dents in the film's body armour: occasional overplayed father/son bonding; a wasted (stuck in a spaceship cabin) Will Smith; some unconvincing CGI, but this is a sci-fi movie that captures the imagination with a downbeat, natural energy - much like the classic isolation of Silent Running (1972) once made being alone on a spaceship with friendly little robot plant-waterers and head gardener Bruce Dern seem like the most enthralling thing to be doing up in space ever! And like Silent Running, After Earth may well also earn itself, eventually - a rabidly devoted, if quieter than the Star Wars crowd, cult status. L. Ron Hubbard and Herman Melville would be proud - at least - of that.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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