5 Awkward Aspects Of After Earth

After Earth4 5 Awkward Aspects Of After Earth

After Earth has been surprisingly divisive among reviewers and audiences, with opinions ranging from those who consider it a pleasantly entertaining bit of filmmaking from maligned director M. Night Shyamalan to those who have declared it in step with his recent string of duds and possibly the worst movie of 2013 so far. I understand both of these views to an extent. I found it to be something of an improvement over outright disasters like The Happening and Lady in the Water, in that I didn’t hate every single second of it. In fact, I found it to be mildly enjoyable, which surprised me coming from Shyamalan and the relatively untested starpower of Jaden Smith. There was a decent number of things in the film to admire.

The biggest obstacle for Shyamalan to my mind continues to be his inability to recognize things in his movie that are just awkward. It’s not that they don’t serve their intended purpose; it’s just that in doing so, these moments have a tendency to take people out of the story and draw unintended laughs or quizzical looks that have us thinking about the filmmaker rather than the film. And part of this is certainly the fact that he has this personal artistic reputation that may be getting in the way of positive reception to his movies, but even so, this could be alleviated by simply crafting a solid movie. Although After Earth has more solid moments and sequences than previous efforts, there are still enough gaps that cause us to shake our heads that the movie doesn’t quite feel like a successful whole. For a character-driven action story, that gets in the way of potentially sound storytelling. Maybe. I’m sure others feel differently.

Here are 5 examples of things about After Earth that are distractingly odd.

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1) “Take a knee, son.”

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So you’ve got this relationship at the center of After Earth between celebrated hero Cypher and his son Kitai, played respectively by Will and Jaden Smith. It’s actually a rather sweetly conceived and mostly effectively executed story of a father having to watch his son venture through dangerous terrain while he is bound by injury and unable to protect him from the destructive forces he is sure to face. There’s some unavoidable clunkiness that comes with having a father instruct his son on things through a microphone, but that’s forgivable. Letting the action linger on Cypher’s impotence and Kitai’s quest to control his fear works fairly well.

But every time Will ordered Jaden to Tebow, I lost my mind a little bit. And this is while completely understanding the purpose within the story for this pose. He has to slow his heart rate and control his fear and calm the eff down for a second and yada yada yada. It’s just that yelling “take a knee!” at anyone contains so much absurdity that for just a second or two I feel like I’m watching a Will Ferrell farce. As though the next instruction to come out of dad’s mouth is going to be “hey now kid, you’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.” It’s something people say to draw laughs, but I’m fairly confident that that’s not the intention in the movie. It makes for a cool looking poster, but in the flow of the story, it throws an audience, at least for me and for the chuckling folks who were around me in the theater.

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2) Attempts at humor

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M. Night Shyamalan has a weird streak of bizarre attempts at humor that I’m fairly sure fall flat with most audiences. In The Happening there’s this weird moment where a character discusses the virtues of hot dogs, which he concludes are an underrated food that have “a cool shape.” I mean, this is really weird right? Like I get that this character is supposed to come off as weird, but in a movie that already feels tonally off, this feeble attempt at injecting humor into a random scene comes off as a little desperate, especially when it’s pretty much the only moment of levity in the whole thing.

After Earth does the same thing a couple of times, but one stands out as being a complete non-sequitur and maybe I’m just crazy but it had me shaking my head and unable to focus on anything that happened for several minutes following. It’s that moment where Kitai’s suit changes color to camouflage in with his surroundings, going from whatever it was, light grey, to dark black. He speaks into his microphone to his dad, saying something like “My suit changed color. I like it, but I think it’s something bad.” That “I like it” seems so bizarrely inserted, as though it’s supposed to be funny but it ends up coming off as just really confusing in this movie that is almost completely serious and devoid of humor for its entire running time. I’m not sure how other serious movies pull off humor, but for some reason this moment that Shyamalan puts in is not a good kind of weird.

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3) That weird dialect

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The most noticeable stylistic feature of After Earth, at least according to the views I’ve encountered, is the dialect that these futuristic humans speak in. At least, I assume it’s a type of dialect. They could just be talking weird. But most seem to conclude that it’s meant to signify a futuristic style of speaking. A kind of amalgamation of Alabama with Oxford, it would seem. Never mind the fact that most of the vocabulary can’t change too much because we need to be able to understand what they’re saying.

It’s maybe a minor quibble, but it’s another one of those noticeable little things draws attention away from the movie’s real strengths in its core narrative. Instead of focusing on the main thrust of what Kitai and Cypher and saying to each other, it’s easy to get distracted by the way they’re saying things, even well into the film when we should be used to the dialect, perhaps because it seems like they slip in and out of the “weird” talking depending on the level of intensity in a scene. It leads me to think that Shyamalan is still fairly strong with big picture arcs, but when it comes to these details he can’t quite get a handle on solidifying a tightly bound product. It may seem like nitpicking but these parts add up to a whole that leaves me and plenty of others with an uneasiness toward these more awkward elements.

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4) All that exposition at the start

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Others have also written about the tendency that’s becoming a trope, which After Earth employs in its opening scenes: a whole lot of explaining the world we’re being introduced to, its history, the featured characters’ backstory, and important technological developments that will surely factor in later on. I’m not as convinced as others that it’s unnecessary, or that it necessarily detracts from the fun of experiencing this strange new world before us.

But it’s always a little bit awkward, and takes an opportunity to make an entrance onto the screen as something new and distinct and effective rather than taking a tired trick of common movies and it anyhow. And this is in spite of the fact that I kind of like the way the movie opens, with imagery that’s rather compelling and a gorgeous little moment that is over too quickly with father Cypher wordlessly instructing his son to focus on his breathing before being sucked out of the back of the crashing aircraft. Jaden Smith isn’t exactly great reciting this opening dialogue, or any dialogue in the film, and is by far the strongest when he seems unable to find words to express himself, like your ordinary teenager. Just less talking in general would suit Shyamalan’s films a lot better, I think.

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5) Pretty much everything involving Kitai

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This is one bit of awkwardness that I actually found to be mostly a strength in After Earth, I think. Kitai is presumably in his tweens or early teens, and so his general awkwardness in expressing his emotions and communicating his desires to his parents is appropriate; the clumsiness with which Jaden Smith delivers his dialogue could be ineptitude but even if it is, of which I’m not entirely convinced, this makes for a realistic portrayal of a period in a boy’s life that is usually considered an awkward phase.

It also explains the motivation behind, or maybe is a result of, his father’s general disappointment with him. He’s reactionary and overemotional and prone to outbursts despite his insistence that he has the capacity to be a strong officer like his father. It’s weird seeing a brash teenage boy brought to tears, and in this movie’s case, that’s a good kind of weird. It’s just unfortunate that there’s so much other weird and offputting stuff going on in After Earth that ultimately end up detracting from the story for too many viewers. There are times when it seems like Shyamalan’s collaboration with the Smith family may seem like a return to the Sixth Sense form of years past, but for most of the movie, the dominating sense we’re left with is bafflement.

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  • nobody

    This movie blew, period!!!!

  • MrSatyre

    I’ve never heard either expression “take a knee” or “keep your head on a swivel”. Must be like “soda” and “pop”. What part of the country are those used in?

    • WoWed

      it’s more “what time period do those expressions come from” than “what part of the country are those used in”

  • AndersonNic

    Horrible article.

  • species-521

    good and well analyzed review. no irony. thanks…

  • Misdemeanor

    great article. M. Night Shyamalan + big budget + cgi = a sub par disaster waiting to happen.

  • wil

    “My suit changed color. I like it, but I think it’s something bad.” lmao so terrible