It seems 2013 is the year Hollywood took Stephen Hawking, the world’s leading theoretical physicist, to heart. “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet,” he says, suggesting that if we don’t change our ways we “might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulphuric acid.”
No fewer than three upcoming movies portray the Earth meeting an untimely end.
After Earth sees Will and Jaden Smith star as a father and son who crash land on Earth after an alien war has left the planet dead and abandoned. A Seth Rogen comedy aptly titled This is the End sees a cast of young A-listers — like Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Paul Rudd and Emma Watson — at a Hollywood party when the world suddenly ends.
This weekend Tom Cruise brings us Oblivion, another story about a scorched Earth, which Cruise’s character, a drone maintenance man, discovers the planet might not be completely abandoned.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, at least according to Hawking and Hollywood, but it isn’t the first time the world has ended, on screen anyway.
Coming a just half a dozen years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Five goes down in the almanac as the first sci-fi nuclear war film. It’s set in a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust. The only five Americans to survive include a pregnant woman and her unborn baby, a neo-Nazi, an African-American man and a bank clerk. The story of subsistence and racial intolerance is an influential movie — Roger Corman and several others have borrowed the basic plot line — but its director, Arch Oboler, was a radio producer and the film is as visually interesting as you would guess a movie made by a sound engineer to be.
The Bed Sitting Room is a British take on Five, only with jokes instead of Oboler’s earnest message. Starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it’s set in a post-nuclear-holocaust London following the Second World War. The war lasted only two minutes and 28 seconds before the bomb was dropped, leaving this strange group of survivors, including a civilian who is next in line for the throne, to explore their devastated city.
So far we’ve talked about serious and strange end of the world movies, but how about a silly one? That would be Savage Planet, an abandoned Earth movie that sees the planet taken over by giant killer space bears!
What do you call a Will Smith movie that’s not really a Will Smith movie?
A screening of his new film, the sci fi actioner directed by M. Night Shyamalan provides the answer. “After Earth” sounds like a great Smith vehicle—he not only acts in it, but produces and has a story credit as well—but it fails to take advantage of his greatest asset—his star power.
Big Willie is Cypher Raige, a highly respected general in the intergalactic peacekeeping organization Ranger Corps, based on the planet Nova Prime. He rose through the ranks fighting the Ursa, genetically engineered beasties who can literally smell human fear. They are POed because they consider the planet their home and the humans interlopers. By learning to overcome his fear—a technique known as “ghosting”— Cypher became invisible to them.
Unfortunately his son Kitai (played by his real life son Jaden Smith) is invisible to him. To try and mend family fences he takes the youngster on a mission to deliver an Ursa specimen for use in training ghost warriors wannabes.
But after Cypher breaks his leg in a crash landing on Earth, a planet uninhabited for a millennium, Kitai must navigate the unfamiliar landscape and battle the escaped Ursa and overgrown Earth organisms—everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans!— to retrieve an emergency beacon.
Herein lies the big problem with “After Earth.” Will Smith—one of the most charismatic movie stars of the day—may have his name above the title on the poster, but he’s the star in billing only. For most of the film he lays back, motionless and bleeding, allowing the light to shine brightly on his son Jaden.
It’s too bad, the listless “After Earth” needs the elder Smith driving the film, not taking the backseat over enunciating motivational lines like, “Recognize your power: This will be your creation.”
Jaden isn’t a strong enough actor to hold the center of a massive CGI movie. He’s charismatic like his dad but here he appears to have only a handful of facial expressions and rotates between anger, surprise, fear and some serious eyebrow acting for most of the film’s scant 90 minute (including credits) running time.
Shyamalan, whose forte is not helming big summer tentpole movies, doesn’t bring much to the screen visually. The look of the movie is generic sci fi, and for every cool scene—Kitai soaring through the air in a wing suit, chased by a giant eagle—there are obvious soundstage scenes and cheesy costumes. Then there are the accents—apparently all future people sound like Rolf Harris. And don’t even get me started on the logic leaps—how do flora and fauna survive on a planet that falls into a deep freeze every night, for instance.
On the plus side it does have a pretty great last line, and at least it isn’t in 3D. But at the end of the day “After Earth’s” main crime is placing Will on the sidelines, robbing it of a star that might have been able to make this journey interesting.