By almost any other standards an audience has for a director, 'After Earth' could easily be considered a tremendous disappointment or letdown; and depending on the individual in question, a flat out fiasco, but of course, in this instance, we're speaking of former directorial wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan, who jumped aboard this Smith family vehicle and found his name not only below that of the film's co-leads, but practically stricken from the prerelease conversation altogether – you had to already know this was an M. Night Shyamalam film going in, because marketing went to conspicuous lengths to steer the average viewer away from such information. In fact, given the sheer wattage of Will Smith's star power, the suggestion just about turned to whether or not such a force of Hollywood magic even required a name director behind his sure-to-be successful efforts.
Then, after the film was released to little fanfare and even less acclaim, the blame, responsibility and scorn shifted to the one person upon whom considerable amounts had been heaped over the last few years. Suddenly Shyamalan's name was unalterably linked to the failure of 'After Earth,' as if he were placed there simply to be the scapegoat, just in case things went inexplicably wrong – which, of course they did. It's worth noting, however, that despite being considered the nameless castaway on a massive production, only to later dragged out and turned into the iceberg that sank the Smith Family Ship of Dreams, by Shyamalan standards – given the misery of his past efforts – the film actually wound up being the least mortifying thing he's done in years.
The only problem is: there's almost no trace of Shyamalan to be found in this rather indistinct and conventional sci-fi romp. 'After Earth' didn't fail to work because its director indulged in his patented tricks; it's because the film is simply unremarkable through and through, in its direction as much as in its acting, action, story, and clunky philosophical themes. Although it's considered a disappointment and is loathed by some, the truth is: there's as little to hate about the movie as there is to like; its story and execution are so mild and safe and featureless, that they simply don't inspire much passion either way.
Sure, there are aspects that work and plenty that don't. The father-son story is both a clever and basic set-up for the film and one half of the reason it garnered so much negative attention. Had Jaden Smith been a stronger actor at the time 'After Earth' was made – or had a child actor with more experience or ability replaced him – then perhaps we might be having a different conversation. Placing over half of a huge sci-fi film on the shoulders of a relatively inexperienced and inelegant performer was a risky proposition, but one that was only exacerbated by the strange, low-key performance of the elder Smith that is substandard for reasons far beyond the fact that he's playing a character named Cypher Rage.
The trouble primarily comes from Cypher's unique skill at something called "Ghosting" – which is the ability to suppress his fear to a degree that it is no longer felt by him or a dangerous alien creature known as the Ursa (blind creatures who sense their prey based on their fear). While this is a handy trait and one that plays directly into the journey of Jaden's character Kitai, the result of this talent seems to be the suppression of all emotion whatsoever; Cypher may be a powerful warrior, but he's also a cold fish of a character. So, essentially, the film is asking Will Smith not to be Will Smith, and what we're left with is less an actor's depiction of a war-weary veteran than it is a non-performance intended to place the spotlight directly on Jaden.
That means most of the plot focuses on Kitai's expedition across the Earth that was abandoned by humankind 1,000 years prior, in an effort to locate a beacon after he and his and his severely injured father wind up being the sole survivors of a horrific crash landing. But the film is also insistent that Kitai's journey be a spiritual one, as much as it is physical.
Much of the film depicts Kitai's mission as do or die time; in addition to being home to giant and hostile forms of wildlife, Earth's atmosphere has changed, requiring a drug be taken by Kitai at regular intervals lest his body be deprived of oxygen. Making matters worse, an Ursa, which was being transported on the ship that crashed, is now on the loose and is quietly stalking Kitai. At this point you have to give the film credit; it has crafted as series of incredibly specific problems, each with an incredibly specific solution. (If you squint, you can almost see the index cards perfectly arranged on screenwriter Garry Whitta's corkboard.) This generates a plot that unfolds in action beats made unique by smaller bits of convenient specificity, like the way the Earth's temperature drops to below freezing at night, but a string of geothermal pockets line Kitai's route to the ship's tail section; he must reach one each evening before nightfall, or he'll perish. The way the script creates objectives both large and small – like tasks in a video game – gives the illusion of complexity to what is a fairly generic, plot-driven story.
But 'After Earth' also goes to great lengths to sell its hokey philosophy that fear is a product of the imagination, and by controlling fear a person is capable of anything. Yet the film doesn't sell this aspect much beyond the frequent announcement of it through the text, and besides, the subtextual element of the film – the one about a son caught in the shadow of his wildly famous, respected, and talented father – is far more interesting. It's just a shame the screenplay didn't zero in on that aspect more, as it might have told a far more compelling story that was uniquely paralleled by the actors headlining it. Instead, we're left with a rather generic father-son adventure, gussied up with some impressive special effects.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'After Earth' comes from Columbia Pictures as a two disc 50GB Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet combo pack. The Blu-ray includes several previews of upcoming film, as well as the obligatory advertisement for the Blu-ray format before the top menu. It also contains several special features exclusive to the HD format.
According to the back of the insert, 'After Earth' was mastered in 4K, giving the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer an additional boost in terms of picture and color expansion. As there's likely not going to be any other HD transfers for this film that don't tout 4K mastering, it's difficult to say was specific advantages it brings to the overall presentation of the film. What can be said, however, is that the disc's image is practically flawless (and, in fact, may actually be flawless), richly detailed and filled with an enormous array of colors and textures in every single frame of the film.
Facial features are rendered incredibly well, with terrific detail being present in the actor's faces, which convincingly depicts the weariness of their long arduous journey. Textures in the costumes, sets and environments is top notch and lends the film a much-needed real-world feel – even in the scenes that are primarily CGI. Adding to this rich, life-like quality is a healthy amount of depth, that's aided by terrific and consistent contrast levels, which balance the scenes brilliantly, regardless their level of exposure. As expected, black levels look superb and produce inky, shadows and dark spaces that still maintain a high level of detail within them.
This is a marvelous looking disc that makes watching a movie that's something of a bummer a little bit better.
As good as the image is, Columbia Pictures has seemingly put forth the same amount of effort in the sound. The discs DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sounds pristine, delicate and grand all at the same time. Dialogue is rich and distinct, and balanced quite nicely with the thunderous score and omnipresent sound effects. That balancing act seems to be a difficult task for some discs, but here each element is presented in what sounds to be the best way possible.
There is an impressive dynamic range here that gives the audio its immersive quality – one that truly sucks viewers in and makes them feel as though they too are wandering through lush forests, looking to see if some form of wildlife is stalking them. Great directionality throughout the channels helps to make this effect even more remarkable, as the rear channels are frequently as active and energetic as the front and center channels. And what prospective summer blockbuster would be complete without some hefty and impressive LFE to punch things up a little?
All in all, it's hard to find fault anywhere with the sound on this disc. It's dynamic and engaging, while also providing crystal clear dialogue, music, and sound effects. It really is top notch.
Although the film is a misfire and a disappointment, it's really only that way for its stars, as the father-son team up of Will and Jaden Smith failed to ignite much in the way of interest in the younger star, or provide evidence that he might one day continue along the same path, unaided by certain advantages. With regard to the film's director, it's the best thing he's done in quite some time, and by that I mean it's not as awkward or uneasy as some of his other efforts. But 'After Earth' is also free of any signature style; it's lowest common denominator, unadventurous entertainment that just falls flat. With terrific sound an image and a handful of interesting supplements this one is a great disc with a bad movie.