By Bob Clark
Classic science-fiction has done a great job of looking forward into the future and predicting many of the major and minor concerns that we find as we move forward in time ourselves– granted, much of the time they really shouldn’t be called “predictions” as much as “suggestions”, the position of any great sci-fi work being a little like the scientist who winds up unconsciously affecting the outcome of an experiment by merely observing it in the first place. From our own minor vaunts into the baby-step realm of outer space, or growing anxieties of how we may render our world into a post-apocalyptic waste by the slow erosion of climate change or the flashbang of war (if it’s even an either/or proposition), all the way to big shifts and small miracles on any number of technological fronts, the way that sci-fi can throw off any number of pre-concieved notions and offer up imaginative speculation gives it an almost automatic thrill of curiosity that most other genres have to work a little harder for. As with so much of sci-fi, however, it’s often best for such speculation to take place in something of a void, some field of science that hasn’t been fully tested or explored. This is true in a number of ways, chief among them being the novelty of the frontier sentiment, giving the creator enough freedom to come up with what they like without pesky reality getting in the way. The more is known, the more a sci-fi story is bound to be scrutinized, and sometimes the very technology that the genre can anticipate can again poison the conversation before it’s even started in earnest– in other words, the Internet.
Restricting ourselves to cinema for the moment, how many classics of the genre would’ve been nitpicked to death right out of the gate, had instant mass-media communication been around at the time? Some masterpieces like Metropolis or Blade Runner already suffered savaging even in the time of print– it’s tempting to believe that wider audiences might’ve found each other online and rescued the films’ reputation during their initial release, but who’s to say that the atmosphere might not’ve gotten worse? How many old-school post-war flicks might’ve been given heavier doses of criticism and snark if there were websites, message boards and blogs waiting to tear them to pieces? Plenty of what are recognized today as classics of the period rest upon at least a handful of fairly major technical limitations, thematic decisions and overall storytelling hiccups that might’ve derailed them to more media-savvy viewers. We remember the beautiful surrealism and dream-logic of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars, but forget how much of the movie’s running time is bloated by stock-footage padding and the occasional moment where even the master designer’s imagination went a little too far into the ridiculous. We remember the spectacular design and effects of Forbidden Planet and the novel way it appropriates The Tempest for a new genre, but can forget how so much of the script and acting veers towards the stiff and wooden– the only really natural performance probably comes from Robby the Robot. As such, when new sci-fi finds itself under an online critical assault long before it’s even screened for the public, I find it wise to take it with a grain of salt and tie a string ’round a finger to remind myself to keep an open mind, though if one keeps tying strings like that every warning sign, you’d likely cut off circulation when dealing with a movie from M. Night Shyamalan.
In a sense, it’s both validating and sad to see how the director’s reputation and career have more or less petered out in the 15 years since The Sixth Sense, a movie whose success I was never able to fathom, neither in its commercial or critical regards, or even in the way that it was able to hoodwink audiences into being shocked by perhaps the least surprising and most obvious twist-ending imaginable out of two decades’ worth of puzzle-film mentality (seriously, if you see a movie that begins with the star being shot, then a fade to black, then that star meeting a child who can see dead people, you should be able to put two and two together at least before third or fourth reel). Unbreakable managed to do a better job of presenting a cohesive and genuinely surprising narrative by seguing into modern superhero origin-story mythos rather than stale ghost-story tropes, and despite the film having a subtle but essential influence on a whole decade of post-modern comic-book fantasies (Christopher Nolan and Tim Kring of Heroes both owe the film a debt), the film’s lackluster reception forced the director back into his increasingly strained bag of tame horror and lame surprises. Signs mined a brand of UFO mythology that might’ve been interesting for an X-Files episode, but stretched to feature-length became borderline incoherent in its lack of logic (aliens with a fatal reaction to water invading a planet made up of 70 percent water), while The Village succeeded in conjuring up a kind of period-perfect world building that would’ve been great for a long-form mini-series, but seems to cut off just when the predictable Shyamalan-twist really starts to make things interesting.
It’s even harder to know what to make of The Happening, the charitable assumption being to call it veer into intentional so-bad-it’s-good camp, while The Last Airbender‘s only excuse for existing was to spur the production the animated series The Legend of Korra, perhaps as an apology, but the fact that his handling of After Earth succeeds as much as it does stands as testament to the level of skill and craftsmanship that was always there beneath the surface of the director’s half-baked narrative gambits and contortions to surprise. Indeed, part of why the movie works is due in part to Shyamalan finally sacrificing the whole spoiler-sensitive twist-ending ambitions of his prior works, instead settling for a story so predictable and well-worn you can easily imagine it being greenlit back in the Cold War– deep into a distant future where man colonizes the stars, a father and son are shipwrecked on a hostile planet, the son forced to send a distress signal that his wounded father cannot, all while staying one step ahead of an alien creature that can sense fear. That the planet in question is a post-apocalyptic Earth is no surprise (indeed, it may be the most realistic proposition sci-fi has produced in the past fifteen odd years of cyberpunk themed virtual-reality variations), and that the father and son are played by an actual Hollywood father/son pair run close to turning the whole enterprise into a huge high-concept vanity project (especially considering Will Smith is given a story-by credit) is more or less irrelevant. What is a surprise is how well the combination of old-school premise and Shyamalan’s usually gimmicky hand works, and how they help turn After Earth into one of the purest spirit of boy’s-adventure storytelling since the heyday of Lost.
To be sure, there’s a lot of stuff throughout the film that critical audiences will rightly dismiss or reflexively sharpen their claws for. Though Shyamalan’s hand with actors, and young actors especially, has been one of his trademarks since The Sixth Sense and Haley Joel Osment’s Oscar-nominated work, some of his decisions here are nothing short of perplexing– for some reason his vision of man’s future in the outer cosmos involves human dialect evolving to the point of everyone sounding both slightly constipated and as though they come from Cape Town. Much of the film’s premise and visuals will quickly remind savvy viewers of past sci-fi movies– the epic vistas of Redwood wilderness can be stunning, but at times look like B-roll footage from Return of the Jedi with set-pieces from Avatar spliced in, young Jaden’s morphing survival suit looks like something brainstormed during production of David Lynch’s Dune, and his retractable double-bladed weapon looks like something Darth Maul might’ve trained with while he was trying to make Eagle Scout. Between this film and the similarly deja vu inducing Oblivion, we’re getting a lot of visually stunning but thematically over-familiar takes of genre tropes so well worn you can start to see the grooves forming in the floor, but what sets After Earth a part at its best moments are both the sheer quality of its visual craft and the dedication it has to its minimalist premise.
Shyamalan has never been better as a world-builder than in his work here, visualizing both a naturalistic take on a ruined Earth with an impressive variety of environments to be explored and traversed, and a dense and detailed look into humanity’s future, filled with all kinds of peculiar physicality and tactile design, everything from homes to starships looking as though they were built from some wonderfully new alien biology. It helps that the director has Peter Suschitzky on-hand as cinematographer, whose sculptorly lighting helps flesh out the locations but never comes quite close to overpowering the realism on display, as has happened on some of his best works (The Empire Strikes Back‘s sometimes too beautiful, too fabricated Hollywood polish, or even the distracting luminescent glow he lends to Cronenberg’s latter-day mainstream efforts. All of this is impressive, and allows the director to display his gift for widescreen scope composition and pared down action set-pieces a space to play that he hasn’t had in earnest since Unbreakable, and shows what he’s capable of doing when honing his talents to the most basic storytelling units, rather than bending over backwards to surprise an audience that has been trained to know better. As such, the strict focus and adherence of the story to the father, the son and the friction between gives all of Shyamalan’s visual graces as fine and uncomplicated a skeleton to build off from, and allows his best assets to be appreciated without any narrative distractions. At its best moments After Earth comes close to the streamlined storytelling and always engaging visual marvels of Bryon Haskins’ Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and even at its weakest it easily outpaces anything Shaymalan has done for a decade or more. It may not have many surprises–not the ruined fate of Earth or the never uncertain fate for its castaway heroes– but it is in itself a pleasant surprise.