But the thing is, After Earth isn't all that bad. It's easily Shyamlan's most accomplished movie in years; it lacks the gorgeous and unsettling foreboding of the first half of The Village but it also lacks the fear-deflating over-tinkered ridiculousness of the second half of The Village. After Earth is a totally ok, fairly well-made, occasionally ponderous small-scale sci-fi survival story on an interestingly large canvas. So why are some critics acting like it's some kind of affront? Let's surf through Rotten Tomatoes for a survey of some truly nutty things that have been said about it, from fairly stupid to amazingly stupid.
I'm not certain how a movie can be both "chaotic and desperate" and also "grindingly slow." The movie definitely moves at a semi-slow pace for a summer would-be blockbuster, but there's not much that's "chaotic" about it. It basically has two characters, and cuts back and forth between clear narratives for each, with a handful of easy-to-follow flashbacks. Shyamalan holds his shots longer than most sci-fi/action/adventure directors. The movie takes place largely on an uninhabited Earth that's basically an extreme jungle. (If anything, it seems somewhat less insanely dangerous than the movie wants us to believe it is.) What is "chaotic" about that?
To be fair, Persall's criticism is a stand-in for about three dozen reviews complaining about how restrained and serious and un-charming Smith is in this movie. I haven't gone back and read all of these critics' reviews of past Smith vehicles, so let's just assume that none of them have ever complained about how Smith is too jocular, quippy, or lightweight in his usual summer blockbusters, and overly dependent on his charismatic movie-star persona. Surely none of them would mercilessly criticize him for doing the exact opposite of what they criticized in years past, right?
I love the assertion that "the average viewer" won't care about the characters. So will it take a below-average viewer, an above-average viewer, or some kind of sci-fi anomaly to feel differently about the characters in this movie than James Bernadrinelli did? Also, in case Smith is feeling bad that not doing the exact thing film critics make fun of him for doing elicited nasty comments about how he's not doing that thing anymore and that sucks, Shyamalan is getting the exact same crazy-person feedback: years of maligning him for his "stupid twists" (even in movies like Signs and The Happening that do not really have twists) followed by complaints that maybe he should've used a stupid twist this time. Right, James. You would've been totally easy on this movie if it had just had a cheesy twist ending.
"In the meantime, Smith’s character in After Earth spends most of the new sci-fi flick flat on his back, with two broken legs. It’s an odd choice, considering that many people who buy tickets to a Will Smith movie do so under the assumption that he’ll be able to, you know, walk."
Just to be clear, this is the opening paragraph to a review of the movie After Earth; its first order of business is to rattle off Smith's upcoming projects, and be factually incorrect about it, because O'Sullivan is just copying unconfirmed information from IMDB based on vague, years-old chatter that Smith might, at some point, sequelize any of those movies. Anyone with even the most basic grasp of film news should know that not a single one of the three sequels O'Sullivan nonsensically mentions is actually scheduled to begin pre-production, let alone production. After dropping this awesomely incorrect scoop, O'Sullivan makes it wholly unclear whether it sucks that Smith's dance card is (supposedly, not actually) filled with sequels to action movies, or whether it sucks that this new movie isn't an action movie—because, as he astutely points out, most people buy tickets to Will Smith movies specifically thinking "well, I was just assuming that there's no way his character will break both legs. It's just common decency that certain things cannot happen to Will Smith in a movie."
Oh, also: he absolutely does not spend most of the movie "flat on his back." He's usually sitting up. If you think that's a weird criticism for me to nitpick, just think about how weird it is to make something up about a movie and then criticize that made-up thing.
After Earth has a clear plot. It has a protagonist with a clear goal. It has an emotional arc. I'm not saying that all of these things are perfectly executed, or that all of these things make it good. But I am saying these things make it an actual movie—even, in fact, the "conventional" one Morgenstern is looking for. Actually, I think Morgenstern should begin every review from now on with "Is [title] the worst movie ever made?" You know, just to pose the question and submit it for discussion.
Morgenstern again. This is the kind of claim that would make sense if you had seen like maybe 15 movies. Ever. After Earth isn't even the slowest-paced movie of the first half of 2013.
There are certainly some problems with After Earth: Shyamalan still struggles to write dialogue that sounds like human speech (especially in the first 15 or 20 minutes; he gets into a more comfortable groove with fewer characters on screen), and the movie's philosophy tends toward ponderous self-help. But it's a pretty decent sci-fi adventure movie, especially for kids: I imagine a lot of 10-to-13-year-olds will enjoy it. And it's well-made by Shyamalan without the crippling screenplay or acting incompetence of some of his other recent efforts (and without the endless cutting or bombast of so many members of its genre). Did I see a different movie than the people above? Maybe the trick is, I made those observations after watching the movie, not by jotting down some pre-approved groupthink before seeing it and then seeing how I could spin what I saw to match it.