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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

'After Earth:' Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Rapper turned sitcom star turned blockbuster scifi action-adventure hunk turned dramatic actor turned proud papa of a thespian son Will "Fresh Prince" Smith formally announcing general plans to stop making big-budget scifi flicks and specific plans to pass on a sequel to his mega-hit "Independence Day" appropriately roughly coincides with the October 8, 2013 DVD  and Blu-ray release of the Smith and Son scifi film "After Earth."

One major theme of "Earth" is literally and figuratively handing over the futuristic style of the cutlass from Will's General Cypher Raige to Jaden's essentially washed-out space cadet Kitai Raige.

"Earth" is a joint "joint" between the Smith clan and "The Sixth Sense" auteur M. Night Shyamalan. Will wrote the story, wife Jada Pinkett Smith and her brother Caleb are producers, and Will may have also catered craft services and raided his closet for the costumes. Shyamalan directs, but this is not your father's Shyamalan film.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, is of "Earth's" trailer; it provides a good sense of the film but is unusually full of spoilers.

The plot and themes of "Earth" are nice homages to classic films and shows of the past. The overall pro-environment message proves what fools these  mortals be by not properly caring for our planet to the extent that it becomes uninhabitable. This development and some dialogue evokes strong thoughts of Greg "Johnny Bravo" Brady's mid-70s hit "We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter." A specific reference to "God made the land" in "Earth" gets the same lyric sung by Marcia Brady stuck in your head.

Of course, the Brady kids and Al Gore are hardly the only ones to warn of us of the likely catastrophic consequences of not being environmentally responsible. Several films over the past few years have shown us the consequences of overpopulation and wasting natural resources.

The "After Earth" solution to making our planet toxic is to create a Starfleet-like ranger corps that evacuates the entire population to a planet in a galaxy far far away. The scenes in which said populace board spaceships will prompt cries of "I said lunch, not launch" among fans of '70s-era Saturday morning kids' show. Later scenes will bring "The Land of the Lost" starring dreamy Wesley Eure to mind.

On an equally juvenile note, it is assumed that the rangers first probed Uranus and discovered that that was uninhabitable.

This relocation element evokes thoughts of the scifi film "Starship Troopers," in which Neil Patrick Harris co-stars, in that the new planet is swarming with vicious huge vaguely spider-like creatures who find human flesh very tasty. Will's Cypher is a (presumably planet-wide) hero who is a master at exploiting the one weakness of the creatures, which are known as Ursas.

Cypher announcing near the beginning of "Earth" that he is retiring after one more mission evokes a flood of memories of television shows in which the veteran cop/soldier/drug dealer/hit person/star plans to give it one more go before calling it quits only to have things go horribly awry. It is also possible that Smith, whose career began in his teens and has lasted roughly 30 years, has decided that he is too old for this stuff.

The inevitable crisis occurs while the stingray-appearing spaceship on which Cypher and Kitai are traveling crash lands on the now-quarantined earth in a scene that is very reminiscent of the highly lauded first scene of the television series "Lost."

The focus of the film then more fully shifts to Kitai as a badly injured Cypher essentially must take a desk job and do his best to support Kitai's field work. This evokes thoughts of a few plots of "Star Trek" series in which an intrepid character must rely on a less-heroic colleague to complete a tough trek up a mountainside or other arduous task to save both of them.

In the case of Kitai, his journey is very reminiscent of a traditional rite of passage. This includes regular flashbacks of a traumatic event from earlier in his childhood that he is struggling to overcome. One especially interesting aspect of all this is that he uses a real classic novel for inspiration.

The overlapping elements of reality and fiction in "Earth" and its ambitious agenda make it a tough one to evaluate.

Trying to make a blockbuster scifi summer movie without giving it too much of a blockbuster film and adding in attempts at an environmental film and a coming-of-age drama is tough. This is somewhat comparable to if the creators of "Ghostbusters" had decided to deeply explore the reasons for Peter Venkman's Peter Pan syndrome and made his interesting job as an exterminator of supernatural beings a relatively comic minor subplot.

Will clearly is toning down his usual charm and wit to shift the focus on his son, and Jaden just as clearly is trying to prove that he is ready to take over the family business. Two obstacles are that the audience likes funny/goofy/guns blazing Will and that Jaden honestly may have had his stardom handed to him a little too early and easily.

It seems that Jaden's dad has engaged in nepotism without doing more to mentor him. We simply have not seen that Jaden is ready to move into the corner office, and he does not seem to have gotten that memo.

Having stated that, and everything else in this review, this movie may resonate more with the demographic of adolescent males of which Jaden is a member and to which the "Earth" is directed.

Moving onto the DVD special features, "A Father's Legacy" explores the themes discussed above, another special feature discusses the great scenery of the earth scenes, and a third has Jaden announcing the winner of a contest to design a rover that can explore Nova Prime's surface. This review will not ruin the official announcement, which is coming later today. It will send the winners sincere congrats and a heartfelt "you go!"

Anyone with questions or comments about "Earth" is welcome to email me. You can also find me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.