(M Night Shyamalan, 2013)
Sometimes it's easy to see why a much-anticipated multi-million dollar blockbuster fails, and fails spectacularly. No script, unlikable characters, a sense of arrogant entitlement to an audience, miscast actors, a misunderstanding of what viewers want to see; or more commonly, some awful mix of various among these qualities...these are the sorts of things which capsize these summer and Christmas tentpoles.
But the failure of a film like M Night Shyamalan's After Earth, roasted by critics and largely ignored by audiences, is harder to understand. As blockbusters go - as Will Smith films go, in fact - this is an incredibly spartan and minimalist work. Of course it cost millions and is filled with special effects and stunts and action. But it is nowhere near as bloated as the majority of action and science fiction blockbusters. And while it's never outstanding - it has a few key flaws working against it - it has some triumphant passages, and is largely an impressive, gripping genre film.
It is set in a Heinlein-esque future in which man has fled a ruined Earth for a new home. There they have encountered an alien race who have, in turn, created a race of blind monsters called Ursas who can literally smell fear and use that ability to impale humans on trees. Humanity evolved a method to fight these creatures, one created by Cypher Raige (Will Smith). Known as ghosting, it involves eliminating all fear and focusing on the moment in order to render an Ursa blind and therefore vulnerable. All of this is ripped through a tad awkwardly in an opening montage-accompanied-by-a-voiceover. The story proper introduces Raige's son Kitai (Jaden Smith), a cadet who wants to be a Ranger just like his legendary father, but who seems to be held back by his obsession with a past trauma - the death of his sister on the pincer of an Ursa when he was a child and his own failure to act.
As an exercise in father-son bonding, Raige brings Kitai on an instellar trip to a new training facility. Only their ship hits an asteroid field and crash-lands on old Earth, with its forests full of beasties, its poisonous atmosphere, and its lethal changes in weather. Not only that; Raige is incapacitated by the crash, and his son has to trek 100 kilometres through the forest to the tail of the ship in order to activate an emergency beacon. But the Ursa they had been transporting is on the loose in the forest, and Kitai still can't get the hang of ghosting...
Once it gets to Earth and all the mythology and set-up is done, After Earth is revealed as a taut little survival adventure with a sci-fi sheen. It is essentially boy versus nature, with his dad backseat driving, and as such it works well. The conceit that Raige can see everything Kitai can, and even much he cannot; and warn him of imminent threats allows them to keep communicating even when Kitai is alone in the forest. The forest scenes are by turns eerie, beautiful and exciting, facing Kitai off against a horde of baboons, some tigers, an enormous bird of prey, the shocking changes in environment, and a leech with a toxic bite which paralyses him. That is all before the final act and the appearance of the Ursa, which, when it comes, is beautifully handled in a sequence of scenes without any dialogue. Much of this is down to the direction of the maligned Shyamalan.
While he was overhyped and a tad overrated in his more successful period ("The New Hitchcock?"), he was always a talented, distinctive and interesting filmmaker, with a unique style and voice. You can just about still make that style out; there are still long takes, bold compositions, and an odd, almost dreamy pacing here. He always generated suspense and tension as much through style as through narrative, and that talent remains even as he lets the situations in which Kitai finds himself supply their own narrative torque.
But his voice is a little more difficult to discern. There is still a journey here; a lead character struggling to find his own way, and overcome an inner demon, which is a familiar trope from Shyamalan's earlier work. But Jaden Smith is such an inept lead, lacking any of his father's charisma or magnetism, that his journey and struggle are muted and seem minor set against the physical trek he faces.
Smith is the biggest weakness here; the film needs somebody strong enough to carry it, and he is simply not that. The vaguely Nietzschean philosophy central to "ghosting" is ill-defined too, all the better to set up the climax, when it should be vivid and simple.
Perhaps silliest and most distracting, however, is the accent everybody in this future is saddled with. A weird mix of Carribbean, Deep South and Received Pronunciation, it renders a few monologues near-laughable.