Sunday, 6 October 2013

After Earth, dir. M. Night Shyamalan, scr. Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, story by Will Smith, st. Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Kravitz

At the risk of incurring unfathomable derision from my fellow critics, After Earth isn't half as bad as you might have heard. It has faults numerous and unaccountable, but it also faintly carries the same stillness and swimmy off-key narrative that I have enjoyed in Shyamalan films past. Watching movies from his back catalogue is an unsettling experience. What others have interpreted as misstepped performances or inelegant dialogue I've always felt lent a sort of parallel-dimension mesmerisingly unearthliness to his films. From a Dramatic point of view his often non-naturalistic dialogue and offbeat characters have often added to the layering of interpretation and meaning, not diminished. That wonderful scene in the much maligned The Village, in which a junior security guard snaffles medical supplies from his guard hut, right under the reflected image of his superior (played by Shyamalan himself) is a great example. Of course he would have been seen. Of course the conversation between them is deliberate and unnatural. Like some kind of alien entity taking on the incommodious human form, there's a discomfort, a conflict, a disruptive clash of aesthetic that jars and unnerves.

After Earth does misfire spectacularly though, but again, I would suggest that the mistake is Smith's (Sr. not Jr. I hasten to add) and Smith's alone. As with the underperforming The Last Airbender, this is the second time Shyamalan has directed a film he hasn't conceptualised - and it shows. Narratively, After Earth stinks. Or rather it has no discernable odour whatsoever, and that's the problem. Overbearing Dad Cypher Raige (geddit? Raige? As in 'rage'?!) takes his real-life son Kitai (Jaden Smith) on a deep-space training voyage, but their astral-bonding-montage is cut off before it's even begun when they crash-land on an Earth humanity left many moons ago due to environmental instability. With the spaceship debris spread over a 100km crash-path, Kitai has to trek to the ship's tail end, brave the new world, and activate a homing beacon before Cypher's severed femoral artery kills him. So far, so video game. But it's worse than that because there's an Ursa after him - a nasty creature that hunts by sensing fear-omones. Overbearing and stoic Dad. Distant family tragedy revealed. Scared Son in need of encouragement and love. You can probably see where this is going, and indeed where the film ends up. But had this vanity project been tamed by Shyamalan, this might have ended up a very different beast. The story is engaging enough, and there are hints of that M. Night magic I referred to earlier; in one early scene, a shaken Kitai explores the ravaged crash-landed ship while a defective automated medical screen continuously wipes and pulls back across the screen. And while Cypher and Kitai's dysfunctional relationship is never given the prologue or coda it deserves, there's (weirdly) an interesting lack of warmth and empathy between the two that's enigmatic and frustratingly underdeveloped. 

Not one of Shyamalan's finest then, but After Earth will, distressingly, I suspect, prove the final nail in the coffin for a director who's been on the path to irreconcilable dismissal since 2002's Signs (incidentally my favourite M. Night movie). He needs to write something new, something that has that same disconcertion and conceptual spookiness of Unbreakable or The Village. It would be a great shame to lose this innovative and visionary director to bloodless films like this.