Thursday 9 January 2014

On DVD: "After Earth"

After Earth will apparently stand as one of 2013's biggest flops (not that anything this big ever truly flops any more): a film that seemed to further confirm that its co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan - after 2008's The Happening and 2010's The Last Airbender - had run out of resonant fables to share with us, and that its star Will Smith, after a very public flirtation with Scientology, had lost his grip on the popular imagination. Arrived at tardily on DVD, long after the crash-and-burn of its theatrical release, the film struck this viewer as both semi-watchable - good-looking, possessed of some appreciably physical action sequences, unlikely to follow this director's previous projects into the Bad Film Club - and yet more proof of the extent to which the majority of our summer event movies are now B-movies reliant for their heft on A-level effects and production design.

This one's no more than a pipsqueaky coming-of-age story, set in outer space, with the distinction of offering up its futuristic jumpsuits to characters of colour - which might already have sounded a risky bet in a summer season where cinemagoers had blown their dough on a more expansive (not to mention more whitebread) Star Trek sequel boasting characters we'd all known and liked, if not loved, for lightyears. It begins joltingly, in such a way as to suggest that an entire opening act has been cut (though welcome, a total running time of 98 minutes is brief for this kind of thing these days), leaving its crucial info to be reshaped into subsequent dream sequences and flashbacks. 

A crash leaves Smith's amusingly named space ranger Cypher Raige with two broken legs, and his bolshy teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith, a.k.a. Smith junior) as the only survivor capable of retrieving the distress beacon that has fallen off on the far side of a long-abandoned Earth where there now be monsters. Off the boy sets to find it, armed with a backpack-mounted camera that allows pop, watching on from the wreckage of his craft, to alert his son to anything creeping up on him: the sense is of some makeshift hybrid of TV's Knightmare, The Jungle Book and the original Star Treks, designed for divorcee dads looking for a cheap weekend bonding ritual with their estranged offspring. (The female Raiges - mum Sophie Okonedo and sis Zoe Kravitz - are the most obvious casualties of the decision to cut to the chase.) 

That might have served a purpose if After Earth were more enjoyable, but there's something hobbling in how it literally removes the legs from under the once-lively Smith senior, who's left (somewhat like the viewer) looking increasingly glazed in front of his monitor, in favour of Smith junior, who - only a few years on from his not unappealing turn in the Karate Kid remake - is entering into what even loving parents have to euphemistically term that difficult age: bumfluff moustaches don't get any less laughable or embarrassing when projected on a twelve-foot screen. And on some level, the film - with its conspicuous story credit for the former Fresh Prince - appears to know what that difficult age is: with its (very American) mantra of "take a knee, cadet", it's evidently intended as one of those parenting manuals by which Hollywood creatives strive to work out their own (and everybody else's) intergenerational issues.

Only here, father knows best at every step: the narrative thrust is the pretty humdrum and altogether anti-spectacular one of getting an unruly child to knuckle down, and you can't help but think the film has gone a long way at considerable expense to dramatise a scene that will be oddly familiar from households everywhere in the weeks leading up to the GCSE mocks. For once with a 3D-ready mainstream entertainment, I'm almost 100% certain you could get that at home, and I dare say with far more humour than the typically unsmiling Shyamalan is willing to summon up here. The film's rejection by perma-Tweeting, screen-sassing teenagers might therefore be regarded as rather cheering - one of the few recent outbreaks of authentic rage against (or, at least, indifference towards) the studio marketing machine.

After Earth is currently available on DVD.

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