The Lame Lessons We’ve Learned About the Future in ‘After Earth’

[3 June 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

While it still has a chance to recoup its budget (and reputation) in the always unfathomable foreign film market, Will Smith’s latest, the abysmal After Earth, appears poised to be the first certified bomb of the 2013 Summer season. Raking in a dismal $27.2 million at the box office opening weekend, the savaged sci-fi epic is seen as another nail in the coffin of Smith’s once dominant commercial appeal, and the final one in M. Night Shyamalan’s struggles to regain his more or less DOA cred. While one critic complained that the film was like watching a child, ill-prepared for carrying a movie on his diminutive shoulders, actually do so, the real problem here is the plot. No, not the Point A to Point B path toward a rescue beacon, but the laughable speculative fiction that fills in the fringe.

Indeed, from the illogical opening to the final over-cranked confront between man and monster, After Earth is overflowing with gaffs, qualms and quantitative WTFs? It’s as if Will Smith (who came up with the concept) turned things over to a screenwriter (Gary Whitta, The Book of Eli) and said “just make shit up, okay?” There is no rhyme or reason to some of the stupidity here, but as a lesson to be learned, here are a few of the corkers that pass for prophecy in this failed action adventure:

Apparently, The Tea Party Wins the Next 25 Elections
We have to leave Earth at some point, because we destroy it. A montage infers rampant global warming, natural disasters, nuclear exchanges, unchecked wars, and various and sundry mistakes by mankind. By this reasoning, the anti-government regulation leanings of the Tea Party become the ruling dicta of future world, removing the need to keep companies and their unchecked Capitalism from running rampant. Granted, this could also be the direct result of some leftist tree hugging that kept technological advances from aiding in Earth’s possible rebound, but with the massive spaceships built after the destruction has set in, one senses more corporate than common sense input.

Weaponry Has “Advanced” to the Point of Shape-shifting Spears
We can fly from our own doomed planet to one several light years away. We can terra-form this new world and make it wholly inhabitable. We can apply a Land’s End design to everything. We can even ward off an invasion of angry spacemen. But, apparently, there is nothing deadlier in the eyes of soldiers circa the future than an analog version of Darth Maul’s two sided light saber. Sure, it’s “neat” when a button is pushed and a standard sharp edge turns into a curved cutlass. But is that really the best we can do from a defensive/offensive standpoint, weapons wise?

Aliens Don’t Know How to Genetically Modify Their Monsters
As part of the introduction, we are told that extraterrestrials, angry over the fact that we’ve turned Nova Prime into our own little interstellar squat, decide to teach us a lesson. While engaged in cosmic combat, the baddies comes up with an idea - a creature called the Ursa. These Starship Trooper like bugs with big mouths and an even bigger passion for destroying people have a single Achilles Heel, however. They are blind, their DNA tweaked so that all they need to locate its prey is “the smell of fear.” Right…rob a killing machine of a key sensory skill while amplifying something that can be combated with a good deodorant. Who said life on other planets was intelligent?

Evolution Only Takes 1000 Years to ‘Work’
At the beginning of the film, we are told that Earth was abandoned by humans when it became uninhabitable. Since our leaving, the planet has had time to reclaim itself and modify its remaining population to become expert biped killing machines. Over the course of the narrative, our little lead must fight off some angry apes, a highly strung hawk (who, later, has a change of heart???), a weird python, and a mutant mountain lion. That’s it. That’s the best ten centuries of the survival of the fittest could manage. Not the deadliest of domains.

What about the Plants?
So, little Kitai Raige is allowed to walk freely around a planet that we are told is vested with millions of way to kill him - and not one of them uses photosynthesis to live. Indeed, the jungle like vistas envisioned for the Earth circa 3013 are calm and relatively tranquil. They are so sedate they could be lifted out of a New Age ambient video. Where are the killer trees? The man eating Venus flytrap derivatives? The poisonous…anything? Heck, we don’t even get a collection of poppies that will make us sleep. How sad.

And the Sea Creatures?
Again, Kitai spends a good few minutes floating down rivers, diving through waterfalls, and basically bobbing around the beautiful briny sea. So why isn’t the water lethal? Why hasn’t it turned to, say, acid or some other volatile liquid a human can’t handle but the indigenous life just love? And what about the fish and the whales and the whatnot. Well, we do get to see a few of those massive mammals at the end, and they seem as calm and collected as any school of krill eating ocean creatures can be.

Medical Science is Still Stuck in the 2500s???
Near the beginning of the film, our expert warrior Cypher Raige is approached by some wounded members of his company. One demands to stand and salute him…even though he is missing a leg. Huh? A missing leg? Heck, Lee Majors was the Six Million Dollar Man in 1975 and even he had decent prosthetics. Later on, Raige is injured when his spaceship crashes. He has a broken leg and a damaged artery. So what’s the amazing medical breakthrough that keeps him from losing a limb? Some injectable pain killers, and a plastic tube bypass. Really? No Dr. McCoy readouts? No Prometheus like surgical pod?

Terrariums Are the Answer
Toward the end of the film, when Cypher is struggling to stay alive and it looks like Kitai might fail, we learn of the reason there is such tension between father and son - when he was a little boy, our pint sized hero watched his sister die at the hands of an Ursa, and Pops was nowhere to stop it. Now, how did little Kitai survive? Why, he hid inside a glass terrarium, meaning the beast couldn’t “smell his fear.” So why don’t the warriors battle these creatures from inside similarly styled suits? Or glass encased tanks?

“Take a Knee” is the 30th Century Equivalent of a Time Out
All throughout his trials and tribulations, young Kitai is being trained by his sedate father to tame his out of control feelings and find a more grounded, emotionless core from which to operate. Whenever our tiny tyrant gets his space panties in a wad, however, Dad (no matter how doped up) has to remind him to calm down and concentrate. His usual meditative mantra? “Take a knee.” Evil monsters are breathing down his neck? “Take a knee.” Sudden climate change means Kitai might freeze to death? “Take a knee.” Movie is so long and intolerable that it takes Herculean effort just to get through it? “Take a knee.”

This Whole Hackneyed Enterprise Might Just Be a Massive Love Letter to Scientology
Will Smith and his bride, Jada, are well known members of the FoLR fold (read: Friends of L Ron) and the Fresh Prince conceived of this story as a way to apply some of his own person beliefs into the sci-fi genre (though the original story didn’t start out in space). In fact, several critics have compared the film and its message to the mantras of Lord Xenu and his thetans. From the notion of fear as the only enemy (which, frankly, was part of Dune‘s designs as well) to the whole ‘finding a center’ and ‘being present in the moment,’ this is more Dianetic than The Master‘s Lancaster Dodd.

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