Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “After Earth”

Dear Frank,

after earth posterAs I write this, let me tell you — I’m not feeling great. Some sort of head/chest congestion thing. It’s way better today than it was on Sunday, thanks to the joys of modern medicine, but it also means that I write this now after having just taken my second dose of DayQuil of the day, and I’m gonna tell you, I feel a little bit loopy.

Which is probably the best possible place from which to approach After Earth.

Yes, Frank, technically I know what I’m getting into. I know this movie is not good. But I need to know JUST HOW BAD.

Because here’s the thing — the question I pose today isn’t “is After Earth a terrible film?” but rather “is After Earth WORSE than Battlefield Earth?” It’s time for the Scientology Metaphor Movie Showdown!

We start off with what’s become a cliche of the sci-fi genre — the voice-over montage explaining how we’ve gotten into this gosh-darn predicament. In this case, we broke the Earth (that is the science fiction premise of this movie, and also the real premise of our lives) and so we went to a new planet.

But the real fuck-up came when aliens invaded who couldn’t see but could smell fear, so the best soldiers were the ones free of fear, because if they were free of fear, they would appear as invisible to the alien fear monsters. Will Smith is super-super-duper-free of fear, and thus is like Grand Lord Chief Bad-Ass or something.

(Frank, of course there are actual character names for the folk that Will and Jaden Smith are playing, but it’s fucking Will Smith, the biggest movie star on the planet, and Jaden Smith, his almost-as-famous son, let’s not kid around her.)

(Also, those character names are really fucking stupid. Like, Will’s name is Cypher Raige or something. You really don’t need that information in your brain.)

Point is, this is actually half-decent world building for an original science fiction fiction studio film. Remember, Frank, Hollywood makes, like, one of these a year, so we’re starved for points of comparison.

This is a not-great screenshot of the exterior of Jaden and Will's house! But trust me, a lot of money was spent to make this movie!

This is the exterior of Jaden and Will’s house! A lot of money was spent to make this movie!

This brings us to New Planet, where Jaden Smith is training become a fancy space marine like his dad, but I guess he has too much fear or something so they won’t let him graduate. This is sad for Jaden, because his dad Will’s coming home that night and he doesn’t want to disappoint him.

At dinner, Will and Jaden just aren’t connecting, but Will feels bad about that… Hmm. It must be really weird for a real-life father and son to play father and son, and have your fictional relationship not be perfect. It’s certainly weird to be a member of the audience, watching said father and son interact and wondering how much of said relationship is based on reality.

Then again, below, please find father and son rapping and dancing on The Graham Norton Show. They look like they’re having a pretty fun time together!

This is also why I never want to meet 50 Shades of Grey scribe E.L. James, because I wouldn’t be able to shake her hand without wondering where has this been.

Anyhoo, Will decides that he’s going to retire after just one last mission, and he’ll take Jaden along with him on that one mission, and it’ll be a good fun bonding road trip, just a father and son out on the space-town, having a good time.

And thus we get on the ship, which is a military ship and… Racially, the people on this ship are quite diverse! Gender-wise… Um. What’s a woman, again? They’re the ones with boobs, right? I think I remember seeing one woman, once, a long time ago… Alas.

Ugh, there’s a lot more of this movie to go. Frank, they’re flying in the space ship, the space ship hits some sort of space thing, technobabble technobabble we have to crash on this quarantined planet. (FRANK I BET YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT PLANET IT IS.)

And then they crash on the planet. There’s one really cool shot in this thing, which is the very first one in the teaser trailer, and so I’ll just embed that below:

Otherwise — yes, they’ve crashed on Planet Earth. To quote Alien Resurrection (mostly just to piss off Joss Whedon): “What a shithole.”

Because we’ve entered the meat of our sandwich now, Frank — the part where Will’s legs are broken, so Jaden has to wander around Earth looking for a science thing that will do a thing that will let them send off an emergency beacon…

Truth: This is where I paused the movie and decided to have a little lie-down with some Skittles and Going Clear. Three more hours until I can have another dose of DayQuil. Three more hours.

Plus, only another hour of this movie! Jaden’s now wandering around Earth (which looks a lot like the third moon of Endor, if I’m to be honest) with a super-suit, his daddy’s “cutlass” and a backpack of fancy future supplies to help him survive. Thanks to the super-suit, Will can hear and see everything that he’s up to, which includes climbing up mountains and being chased by monkeys…

It’s kind of compelling, actually, if you go in for that Boy’s Own Adventure type deal. (I do not, necessarily, but I’m not going to say the action scenes are badly put together.)

And here’s the thing: I was actually kind of interested in watching After Earth before it came out, because hey, sci-fi adventure, I still fondly remember Will Smith’s work in Independence Day, and I was curious to see if M. Night Shyamalan would be able to pull his career out of the skid.

(That’s right, Frank, the advertising materials included NO mention of it, but the Oscar-winning director of The Sixth Sense has come upon some HARD TIMES. For maybe good reason.)

Then Vulture ran a pretty smart and damning piece about After Earth‘s very clear connections to Scientology, and all interest pretty much vanished. What rang most true for me was the element of Will being able to monitor Jaden’s emotions and fears through his super-suit, which is very much reminiscent of the Scientology audit.

Imagine this, but with more monsters and forest.

Imagine this, but with more monsters and forest.

And there is definitely some of that. “Recognize your power. This will be your creation,” Will says at one point. It’s like Will Graham is writing his dialogue for him.

But the reason I bring all this up is that I wasn’t expecting much of a father-son relationship between Will and Jaden — I was expecting something super-clinical and awkward, befitting the Scientology inspiration. But I found myself pleasantly surprised!

Especially by this one scene, halfway through, where Jaden’s been poisoned by something, and Will has to talk him through administering the antidote. And it’s actually a real, genuine, human moment, because Jaden’s writhing on the ground begging his dad to come help him, and Will can’t (because of the broken-legs thing), but he’s trying to suppress those emotions and play the good soldier, and eventually he’s able to talk Jaden through the process.

Jaden survives, and he gets back on his feat. “Hey dad. That sucked.”

“Yes, it did,” Will replies.

Genuinely good moment, right there! Frank, please remember that I am on drugs.

Also, in case it matters, Frank, Zoe Kravitz is Jaden’s older sister, who got killed by one of the alien fear monsters awhile back, but keeps showing up in flashbacks and visions. Zoe was also apparently a space marine, but she decided to hide Jaden in a glass terrarium (GLASS, CLEAR GLASS) when one of the alien fear monsters came a’callin’, and she was not able to conquer her fear and thus died tragically. So, smooth move there, Zoe. Way to die tragically and traumatize your little brother at the same time!

Okay, the glass contains the smell of his fear so it is actually a half-decent idea, but still, RIDICULOUS.

Okay, the glass contains the smell of his fear so it is actually a half-decent idea, but still, RIDICULOUS.

Will and Jaden lose contact for a little bit, but eventually Jaden retrieves the beacon they need and heads back to their ship. Of course, along the way, he runs into one of those alien fear monsters that killed his sister! (The reason there is an alien fear monster on Earth is that there was one on board their ship, for stupid reasons that I don’t feel the need to get into here.)

Fight fight fight! But in a key moment, Jaden conquers his fears and is able to triumphantly kill the fucker. Hooray!

He's even mastered Will's dead-eyed "I've conquered fear!" stare!

He’s even mastered Will’s dead-eyed “I’ve conquered fear!” stare!

Monster conquered, beacon sent, help arrives (including some space marines with boobs!), big American party everybody disco dancing. And both Will and Jaden have decided they’ve had enough of being space marines, and want to live civilian lives going forward. They like each other! Jaden sits by his dad’s bedside! The rescue ship flies over an ocean full of whales! It’s nice! The end!

Really, Frank, I find myself somewhat shocked. (M. NIGHT TWIST!) I was prepared for an incoherent, lifeless mess of a movie — and instead, it was vaguely coherent and only mostly lifeless. The story even PRETTY MUCH MADE SENSE! (At least through my DayQuil haze.)

Okay, the alien fear monsters who can’t see you but can smell fear were really stupid. Really really stupid. They’re kinda terrifying in appearance, but really, it’s such a transparent metaphor of a device that it drags down all of the actually maybe interesting world-building that occurs.

There’s the weird accent thing, too: Everyone talks weird, because the theory is that a thousand years in the future, human accents will have neutralized into one weird mega-accent that sounds the same to everyone. So the filmmakers made something up to approximate that. Conceptually, this is a good idea, but you know how any joke you have to explain isn’t actually that good a joke? It’s the exact same situation, right here.

Also, a regular, pre-existing new accent is a big obstacle for any actor to deal with. A FAKE accent? Maybe you’re asking a little bit too much of your FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD lead actor. Jaden does okay with this whole “starring in a sci-fi action film thing,” don’t get me wrong. But the accent thing really just doesn’t work. (Though it could have been worse — Jaden might have been forced to speak Mandarin).

The point remains: Join me in congratulating After Earth. It probably doesn’t have much to feel good about, but it’s a better movie than Battlefield Earth. And that is SOMETHING.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on April 16, 2014, in All the Spoilers, Movies, Spoiler Alert! and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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