After Earth opens with sound. Kitai (Jaden Smith) huffs purified air nervously through a futuristic oxygen mask – which looks much like our modern ones, only dressed in nonsensical video projection systems – while his father Cypher (Will Smith) calms the situation.
That situation is a catastrophic crash, their space craft set on colliding with Earth. Heavy handed, militaristic, and incapable of humor, Cypher is jettisoned violently from the room, leaving Kitai alone.
Until After Earth drops its created intensity for flashbacks.
After Earth has much to tell us, even beyond its ecological nightmare. Humanity’s new home, rocky and sun dried Nova Prime, is infected with Ursa, blind and teethy alien beings with an appetite for fear driven human pheromones. Evolution was rather harsh to Ursa’s feeding habits, and their look seems to evolve not from nature, but rather the unwritten handbook of Hollywood alien design.
Earth was quarantined in 2071, eco-terror montages telling modern audiences to knock it off or risk being unceremoniously exported similarly. Maybe projecting crud of this scale onto expensive, power sucking IMAX screens would be a convincing first step to fixing things.
Despite most of the ship’s crew ejected onto unfortunately placed tree branches or crunched under debris, human Ursa wrecking ball Cypher and jittery Kitai inexplicably survive. Packing an inexhaustible supply of clumsiness, Kitai ventures forth to make a phone call back to Nova Prime, as his heroically billed father sits down for the entirety of the second and third act.
Cypher’s leg was broken, interesting since it was clearly his head which smashed into a wall like a rejected Halloween pumpkin during the crash. Losing blood and turning monotone from pain, Cypher guides his as-of-yet inexperienced son on this grand parable… err, journey of self discovery.
Comically fierce and tough with masculine brutishness, Cypher barks orders from a still working command center (including multiple dazzling video walls still functional), somehow still drawing power from an unseen source. Kitai faces down chattering monkeys, a persistent bird, trees, and anything else which can cripple pacing worse than Will Smith confined to a chair.
After Earth makes a critical misalignment of priorities, assuming its superstar actors are of such immovable prowess, their mere presence could buck up and carry 1,000 years of fiction. In reality, the junked exposition of planetary expulsion and Will Smith fearlessly punching aliens (again) carries more cinematic weight. Clunky as it is, that cluster of panic and ill-advised flashback between uninteresting credits is of far more interest than anything that happens to Katai on his predictably flat adventure.
M. Night Shyamalan and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky plunder the riches of Utah (and Switzerland) to create an Earth born of futurism, and end up making it look like…well, Utah. It’s forested and green, all signs of humanity vacated in what, geologically, is a thin span of time.
Roughed up with green screens and sordidly paced action, After Earth props itself up under the notion it is extracting a viable (and profitable) science fiction universe, instead finding itself begging to lean on its original conception. There, Jaden and Will went camping, only to find disaster when Will’s leg is broken, sending Jaden out to find help. Effectively, that is After Earth, only someone topped it off with a spaceship, because sci-fi.
Packaging fails to take note, although on disc information labels After Earth as another in Sony’s line of, “Mastered in 4K” Blu-rays. That joins Ghostbusters, Godzilla and others in this rush to higher resolution. There is purpose for After Earth’s labeling, snugly fit into the 4K frame from Sony’s own digital CineAlta F65 camera, and the first all-digital outing for Shyamalan.
What becomes interesting are filmic elements. A veneer of grain seems to layer itself over images, especially in flashback, either artificially placed or low level noise generated camera side with no filters applied. Sony’s encode, capped to an unusually light (for Sony) 17.8 GB for video, handles any fluctuations cleanly without any additional roughing up. This may signal why labeling is non-existent: Most 4K releases use nearly all 50GB of space; After Earth scrounges up around 32GB.
Key here are two things, one being consistent, extravagant application of facial definition and lush forests which push into the horizon line. Definition soars and signs of digitally derived anomalies are non-existent. Medium shots prove compellingly sharp, making a firm case for ditching film. Clarity has certainly reached appreciable levels. Only one shot in After Earth carries any unnatural smoothness. Softened scenes come with natural presence, which includes a waterfall dive bathed in mist, green screens, and visual effect placement.
However, black levels will lose their stinginess under duress, still stout in their mission, if failing to hold firm. Darker scenes wallow in hints of graying air, although intensify to produce enormous dimensionality in most daytime exteriors. It is pushing into nitpick realms, certainly for its adherence to capturing shadow details. Much of the film wows visually, even if it flat lines in giving audiences anything more than Utah.
Important, nay, imperative to After Earth is ambiance, a means of shattering Earth and making it sound hauntingly unfriendly. For most of the feature, these forests sound like… Utah forests. Call it redundancy, but there are no alien elements; life has not evolved or shifted enough in this time to upend familiar aural surroundings. Well placed elements (birds and insects leaping from every channel) are ultimately mundane and boring. There is barren design at work, concerned for atmosphere and naturalism.
Brushing well over a third of the feature aside, sci-fi trappings bare weight. Throbbing LFE is masterful during a brief asteroid shower, which punches holes in the light speed traveling ship. Ricocheting space rocks pelt the hull, and each impact is felt with dramatic weight. Exteriors produce sound too, including droning engines, enough to push the sequence into reference territory, even if it feels bloated sonically.
Shreds of perfectionism show up during other actions, including a rush of irritated monkeys charging at Kitai, and brushes with waterfalls and wind during a leap of faith. Dream sequences will send dialog panning into each channel, and there is a pleasing audio depth to Will Smith’s otherwise gratingly dull performance.
Unlike other “Mastered in 4k” discs, bonuses come packed in. A Father’s Legacy explores the father/son dynamic, which in actuality, has more weight in reality than fictionally. An included alternate opening would have changed little and fixed nothing. Building a World details interesting production design which happens before arriving in Utah, and Pre-Visualizing the Future details the unique approach taken after principal photography.
A series of animatics showcase work done by pre-vis artists. Obnoxiously scored montage 1000 years in 300 seconds is longer than 300 seconds, but shows off some excellent behind-the-scenes footage. Nature of the Future is a screen saver, because those didn’t die out with Windows 95 after all. Finally, winners of a green challenge are given their award, to be immortalized on home video, which unfortunately ended up being After Earth. All together, bonuses reach about 45-minutes total.