After Earth (2013): Why It Failed: A Speculative Essay
This is not a movie review. I know that you---whoever 'you' may be---have already read and/or watched a ton of reviews about this film. The vast majority of them were negative, and deservedly so. You, whoever 'you' may be, have already seen the movie.
You see, it is not my desire or intention to take the easy way out and simply 'pile on,' as it were, with the negativity. What I hope I can provide here, very briefly, is more insight into precisely why the movie failed, and, indeed, why the project probably wasn't a good idea in the first place.
You know, a very good question to ask yourself when you're watching a movie, and you intend to give some kind of critique of it for others is this: Is this movie telling me a character-driven or situation-driven story? The answer should be one or the other.
Before we go any further let me define my terms. Let me tell you what I mean by character-driven and situation-driven.
When I say that a story is character-driven I simply mean that the story is generated because of the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist(s). The primary characters have a unique psychology, perspective on life, and in particular, a unique perspective about some kind of situation they are in (not necessarily in and of itself headline grabbing). But it is the way in which they react to their lot in life or mundane situation, given their unique psychology and perspective, that causes a story to happen. In other words, the story is generated on an inside-out basis.
For example, in my opinion, the film, Citizen Kane (1941 starring and directed by Orson Welles) is a character-driven movie. This is because the almost sole cause for the dramatic tension lies in the psychological and emotional motivation of the main character played by Mr. Welles. If this Kane had been more of a conventionally-minded young American aristocrat, no story is generated.
Think of a person walking off a sidewalk and into space. As he passes the edge and continues to walk, just enough sidewalk is materialized under him to catch his footfalls; and this process continues as long as he walks this path. That, in analogy, is what I'm talking about when I say that a story is "character-driven," when I say that the generation of a story is "inside-out" in nature.
When I say that a story is situation-driven I merely mean to say that they story is generated on an outside-in basis. A character is thrown into circumstances that are not only beyond his control, but which he had no part in creating in the first place. Any perspective we get on the pivotal characters comes from how they react to what is happening to them.
For example, you might call the 1993 comedy, Dave, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, a situation-driven story. Kevin Kline plays the owner/manager of a temporary employment agency, who just happens to look exactly like the President of the United States of America. Anyway, stuff happens which effectively make the American Head of State indisposed; and people close to the Chief Executive prevail upon Kline, in the name of patriotism, to assume the role temporarily.
A lot of other stuff is going on, but the point is this: Kevin Kline was just living his ordinary life, 'minding his own business,' as they say, when he becomes embroiled in an unimaginable set of circumstances. This is an "outside-in" story
The thing is that any story you read or watch should be one or the other, if not some combination---character-driven or situation-driven. It doesn't matter about genre either. Any and every story you encounter should either be readily identifiable as character-driven or situation-driven.
The extraordinary thing about After Earth (starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith) is that it manages to be neither. The question this raises is: How can that be?
As you know, this is a science fiction film we're talking about. Two voyagers (the Smiths) have crash landed on Earth, where no human has set foot for one thousand years, and where, for some reason, all the animals have been "bred to kill humans."
Backing up a little, it seems that humanity had long ago relocated to another world, for some reason; and the native creatures of that world can smell human fear. The only way to defeat these predatory creatures is by learning how to shut off the emotions---which is called 'ghosting'---so that the beasts cannot detect you. It seems that all of these creatures are blind and they navigate themselves by smell, so it seems.
The people who specialize in this kind of combat are called Rangers. Will Smith is one of these Rangers, a legendary one at that, which means he is particularly expert at shutting off the emotions, and thereby making himself invisible to the predatory beasts. His son, Jaden, wants to become a Ranger just like Dad.
Anyway, they're both on a space ship, flying somewhere, when they crash land on Earth, you know, the planet where no human has set foot on for one thousand years with all the creatures, somehow, "bred to kill humans." The ship is split into two halves which got propelled many miles apart.
Will Smith's character is badly hurt and can barely walk as a result. This means that its up to Jaden's character to trek across the land, get to the other half of the ship, where he will then be able to activate an emergency signal beacon, which will bring help to them.
Along the way, Jaden's character, a rather high-strung young man must weave his way through the dangers of this planet, including beasts bred to kill humans---he must stifle his emotions so that they do not see him---at least ideally.
A. The story is NOT situation-driven because the situation is unbelievable. Yes, I know this is science fiction, but you see, this plot does not achieve the desired end of what is called the "suspension of disbelief."
The story does not achieve the suspension of disbelief because its plot flies directly in the face of very, very basic science facts known to us all, even to the likes of someone like myself---the one writing this essay.
1. As has been pointed out many times before, one thousand years is simply not enough time to affect any evolutionary change.
2. What has also been pointed out many times is the fact that evolution of species must happen in context of environment. Why and how would the creatures of Earth have evolved to kill humans, if humans have not even been on the planet for one thousand years? How did the creatures ever learn what a human was, so as to specifically set themselves against them?
If you want to write a science fiction story or make a science fiction movie, you have to place events within the realm of the unknown, where you can speculate freely, and where your ideas and theories are just about as good as anybody else's. If you place events well within the realm of the known and simply turn logic on its head, for no discernible reason, you risk making a 'B' movie, something that is laughed at and dismissed with the back of the hand.
B. This story is also NOT character-driven because "success," if you want to call it that, is expressly said to rely on the ability to suppress---if not extinguish to some degree---the personality.
This is a strange story that negates itself. There is no "inside-out" dynamic that I referred to. Since the "situation" itself has no believability because of the way it flies directly in the face of very simple, basic information readily available to all, there is nothing for the "character" to respond to. Since "success" depends on the suppression (if not extinguishment) of the personality, there is no independent interior motor that can plausibly generate action. Does that make sense?
What you get, as a result I think, is a movie that does not know what to do with itself.
There is, of course, more that I could say, but I won't because to do so would be unkind. You've already seen and heard a ton about this oft-reviewed and deservedly oft-slammed film. Most of you have seen it. The only thing for me to do---perhaps for the benefit of people who have not seen it---is to add my humble voice in very respectfully declining to recommend After Earth.
Thank you so much for reading.
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