AFTER EARTH – Blu-ray review

“Hey Dad, can we have a catch?”
“Hey Dad, can we work on my science project?’
“Hey Dad, can we star in a $130 million summer tent pole science-fiction feature film?”

Some children’s lives really are very, very different. In what might be termed the most expensive  “take your son to work day” ever, Will Smith and son Jaden Smith star in “After Earth,” their second film together after “The Pursuit of Happyness” from 2006.

Smith the elder is General Cypher Raige (love that name), leader and shining star of the Ranger Corps, the tight-suited protectors of humanity in the dangerous future 1000 years hence. Smith the younger plays Cipher’s son, Kitai, who wants to follow in his emotionally distant father’s warrior footsteps but must find his own courage first. On a space journey together to re-connect as father and son, their ship crash lands on the now-quarantined and lethally hostile planet Earth, and Kitai must trek alone through dangerous and unknown territory to save his injured father and himself.

In his fourth feature film, Jaden steps into the spotlight as never before, essentially carrying the burden of the film on his shoulders. He showed a pleasant, unselfconscious charm in his earlier films, but here he is clearly much more aware and involved in The Machine, of being a Movie Star and all it entails. Though reasonably convincing in the action scenes, which are plentiful, whenever Kitai has to simply be, you can see and hear the “what would a movie star do” gears whirling and grinding behind the facial expressions and flat, rushed line-readings.

Keeping the audience’s focus on the next generation of the family business, Will Smith carefully modulates his performance, all stick-up-butt flinty resolve and stoicism. But after the ship crashes, the broken-legged Cipher is reduced to watching and commenting on Kitai’s progress through a video link, and playing a captain’s chair-bound version of the game Operation (“take out wrenched femoral artery–bzzzzz”). This leads to hefty chunks of clipped, forced dialogue along the lines of “get to the waterfall ASAP” and “return to the ship—that’s an order” and “run!” Like Siri having a bad day on Apple Maps.

Without much grace or insight, the narrative plays on (exploits?) the time-honored parental fear of watching helplessly as your child goes out into the world. It’s a beautiful designed world, at that, all organic curves and nature-inspired shapes, like the manta ray space ship or the rib-like beams and honeycomb structures of the home planet. Lots of thought and effort has been expended on casual visual detail, which is good, because it takes your mind off the rote characters and occasionally clunky dialogue. And I liked the multi-bladed Ranger weapon, like some hyper-Ginsu that cuts tin cans and alien thorax with equal ease.

The ambitious grandness in the vistas, and interesting location shooting (in Costa Rica and in California’s redwood forests) are undercut by a sense of workman-like blandness, and director and co-writer M. Night Shymalan’s rigid and uninspired rhythms. A rushed and minimally comprehensible prologue doesn’t help much, either. It’s interesting to note how relatively invisible his name was in the promotion of this film, both before its release and in the disc release packaging—probably a good move given the tedious awfulness of his previous film “The Last Airbender.”

It’s not saying much, then, that “After Earth” is an improvement on Shymalan’s last film. You get some good stuff to look at, but not much else. Go have a catch with your son instead.

Video:
The “After Earth” Bly-ray/DVD combo pack is presented in 1080p High Definition, in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Mastered from a 4K picture source, the picture quality, detail and color richness is exceptional. The Blu-ray disc which is reviewed here is one of the best-looking discs I have seen, with great depth of field and edgy lines. There are options for English SDH, and French and Spanish subtitles, and code for an Ultraviolet digital HD version of the film.

Audio:
The audio track is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with options for English Audio Descriptive Service, Spanish 5.1, and French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.  This is a nicely-done audio, crisp and well-balanced, with excellent detail.

Extras:

  • “A Father’s Legacy”–explores Will and Jaden’s relationship on and off screen. Listen closely, and you can hear the hubris birds chirping softly in the background.
  • “Alternate Opening”—an alternate version of the prologue, which actually clarifies a little of the confused opening they chose to use
  • “Building A World”—a good making-of featurette about the creation and origins of the films’ visual elements
  • “Pre-Visualizing The Future”—about the drawings that helped establish the shooting style of the action sequences
  • “The Animatics of ‘After Earth’”—storyboards and animatics, the minimally animated drawings used to help establish camera angles and movement
  • “1000 Years in 300 seconds”—video clips and stills of the production on location
  • “The Nature of the Future”—video clips from the location shooting, which can also be used as wallpaper for your monitor
  • “XPrize After Earth Challenge”—clips from the winning submission in a conservation-friendly video and design contest run online by the production company

Parting thoughts:
Though it looks good, with smart production design, “After Earth” never fulfills its potential, and suffers from a charisma-free central performance by Jaden Smith.

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