Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (3 1/2 Stars)  ChicagoSunTimes (1 Star)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

After Earth [2013] (directed and cowritten by M. Night Shyamalan along with Gary Whitta, story by Will Smith) is a very nice father/young teenage son sci-fi drama (starring the actual father/son team of Will Smith and his14 year-old son Jaden) that I believe that any military/vet/cop family would probably understand.

The film begins far in the future on a planet far far from Earth (as Earth had become so polluted that humanity had to abandon it 1000 years ago) and it centers on the relationship between General Cypher Raige (played by Will Smith) a decorated indeed almost legendary special forces military officer and his 14-year old son Kitai (played by Jaden Smith) who, often missing his dad (because he's so often away on various, always distand and always dangerous missions) desperately wants to become "just like his dad." Again, ANY military family or one with a hero could probably relate to this situation.

There are women in this family too, of course.  There's Faia Raige (played by Sophie Okonedo) Gen. Cypher/Kitai's loving wife/mother and then there was Senshi Raige (played by Zoe Isabella Kravitz), Kitai's older sister, and who had clearly been otherwise hard-nosed/cold Gen. Cypher Raige's "apple of his eye." 

Senshi had died when Kitai was only 5-6 years old protecting him (Kitai) from a horrible monster-like animal living on the planet where the Raiges and other humans now live, an animal species that literally "smells fear."  If Cypher had always been quite cold/distant (indeed trained to "mask his fear") in the past, he had become even more so, emotionally and otherwise, after Senshi's death.  Beyond grieving the loss of his favorite daughter "in his own way" by perhaps volunteering to go off on those always distant, always dangerous missions, it becomes clear that he partly blamed his son (even though he could not have been more than 5-6 at the time) for the loss of Senshi.  For his part, Kitai, racked by guilt that his older sister had died saving his life (and sensing the devastating effect that her death had on his father) Kitai was trying all the more to prove himself to his father ... who was almost never around (and who as noted above at least on some, if irrational, level blamed him for her death).

This then is the emotional set-up for the film.  Things come to a head, when Gen. Cypher, having come home from one of his missions is asked by his wife to take their 14-year-old son, Kitai (who's now "a cadet" after all, trying so hard to become a special forces Ranger "just like his dad") with him on his next mission.  After all, it was supposed to be "just a training mission," with cadets not unlike Kitai though a few years older than him anyway.   Gen. Cypher, reluctantly agrees.  But when they set-off on the "routine (training) mission," he asks his son to basically just strap himself into his seat in the interplanetary transport that they are traveling in with his gas mask on -- basically to out of the way -- while all goes according to plan ... until, of course, it does not.

The transport finds itself running-into a freak meteor-shower and is so damaged that it needs to crash land on the nearest hospitable planet available -- which turns out to be Earth, abandoned and quarantined by humanity some 1000 years previous (for reasons mentioned above).  The crash landing results in killing everybody on the ship except for the always heroic Gen. Cypher Raige (though he suffers two broken legs) and his 14-year-old son Kitai, who though a Ranger cadet, had been ordered by his heroic father to just sit in strapped in his seat with his gas mask on, had as both a "good cadet" and a "good boy" (if somewhat disappointedly/resentfully) ... "followed orders." ;-) 

Now decorated Gen. Cypher is forced to entrust his 14 year old son Kitai, cadet though he was, to traverse 100 km of uncharted wilderness (again, Earth had been abandoned by humanity for 1000 years) to retrieve a distress beacon that was located on the other end of their ship that had broken apart in pieces as it entered Earth's atmosphere, so that a rescue ship could be summoned to save them.  Much ensues ...

A fair amount of the critics reviewing the film complain about the stiffness of the performances of Gen. Cypher and his son.  Yet, I return to my belief that, while perhaps the stiffness is exaggerated a bit (for effect), any military family would understand.  This is to say that the IMHO stiffness in the performances of the two Smiths playing their roles was INTENTIONAL.  To support this view, I'd point out that, in contrast to Gen. Cypher who almost never smiles in the film (except in flashbacks involving his beloved and deceased older daughter Senchi) and Kitai, who's so much of a basket-case (if a heart-rending one) throughout most of the film, first trying to prove himself to his father and then plunged into a mission that was for real on which both his and his father's survival depended, that he had no time to smile, THE KEY WOMEN in the film, both wife/mother Faia and daughter/sister Senchi are portrayed as nothing but ever smiling/nurturing LOVE.

There are things that I would wonder about in the plot construction of the film.   I'm not sure why Earth had to be "abandoned" a 1000 years before the story was to have taken place with the father's/son's craft then crashing back on this "abandoned Earth."  Perhaps any "Earth-like planet" would have sufficed. 

Then the hideous monsters who "smelled our fear" who both existed on humanity's new home planet and then Kitai had to confront on Earth anyway (as it was part of the "cargo" being carried on the transport that carried father/son and the other Ranger trainees on their otherwise "routine mission") were certainly "over the top."  (Why do all of Hollywood's space aliens these days seem to look like hideous monsters bent on destroying us?)

Still I suppose, poor 14-year-old Kitai finds himself on a mission requiring him to confront truly "the sum of all (his) fears" -- (1) new fears - he has to traverse 100 km of, to him, utterly unknown terrain to save both him and his father, (2) old fears - he has to eventually confront a hideous monster (again somewhat inexplicably carried on the ship that crashed then with him and his father on Earth) of the same species that killed his older sister back on his home planet (a monster that could literally "smell" his fear), and (3) even more ancient fears - he finds himself on a planet that may be utterly new to him but that's filled with the consequences of mistakes made by his ancestors 1000+ years before.  So it all makes for one heck of a parable if at times a rather crowded one.  And it's one that I'd recommend to families with fathers who have been military heroes / otherwise "heroes on the force" and children trying really, really hard to become just like them.

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