After Earth: An epic struggle between good and bad taste

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Jaden Smith in After Earth
  • Jaden Smith in After Earth
The most valuable player on After Earth, the big-budget sci-fi feature that opens in general release today, may well be cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. As David Cronenberg's regular cameraman since Dead Ringers, Suschitzky has developed a look of uncanny glossiness in their numerous films together. His lighting never feels unnatural, yet there's always something off about it—it seems almost too controlled, as if the drama were playing out in a museum diorama. Suschitzky's contribution to Cronenberg's work is most pronounced when the settings are the least artificial: the old Chinese exteriors of M. Butterfly, the sanatorium grounds of A Dangerous Method, the woodland settings of eXistenz. The latter film, a rare future-set sci-fi tale without a single metropolitan setting, may represent the height of Cronenberg and Suschitzky's partnership; in it tall trees and country roads seem as alien as any futuristic technology.

After Earth calls upon Suschitzky to achieve something similar. Most of the film takes place on Earth a few thousand years after human beings have abandoned it; the natural world reigns supreme, as it did in prehistoric days. The filmmakers combine locations in Costa Rica, Utah, and northern California to conjure a planet overrun with only the most imposing aspects of nature: mountains, rain forests, volcanoes. (Gus Van Sant and the late Harris Savides mixed and matched topographies to similar effect in Gerry.) Suschitzky makes it all seem unnatural, which is to say he invokes a sense of order resistant to human intervention.

As per his custom, M. Night Shyamalan lets shots transpire for much longer than any other contemporary Hollywood director would. The spectator actually navigates his way around the frames, rather than passively consuming them. Shyamalan's overt admiration for cinematographers is a constant strength of his otherwise spotty filmography. Consider the all-stars he's worked with: Christopher Doyle (best known for his partnership with Wong Kar-wai) shot Lady in the Water; Eduardo Serra (the Portuguese cameraman who worked repeatedly with Claude Chabrol and Patrice LeConte) shot Unbreakable; Roger Deakins (who shot most of the Coen brothers' work) is the cinematographer on The Village; and Tak Fujimoto (Jonathan Demme's collaborator for decades) shot the rest. These movies share a recognizable visual grammar, but cover a wide range in terms of tone, weight, and color palette. Each film represents a new imaginary world to explore, with its own vibe and textures.

It would be easier to appreciate the artistry of After Earth if none of the characters talked. The lead, 14-year-old Jaden Smith, delivers his lines as though reading them from cue cards outside the frame—when his character finds himself in life-threatening danger, Smith can only register the panic of a boy who's lost his cell phone. His father, Will, isn't much better. As a respected space general, Smith conveys military brilliance by acting like a robot. It's strange that the movie's emotional arc would involve his son—or any human being, for that matter—striving to receive his love. When the two Smiths crash land on the posthuman earth, the younger must brave the wilderness to find a communication device that fell out of their broken spacecraft some 30 miles away. The older, who's broken his legs, stays behind, coaching his son via a futuristic walkie-talkie. Spoken without any trace of humility, his message of self-empowerment sounds uncomfortably like that of Johnny Wu, Ken Jeong's obnoxious motivational speaker from Pain & Gain. (The ugly, Randian undercurrent to his philosophy is that people experience natural feelings like fear and grief only because they're weak. This guy's supposed to be the hero?!) Between Suschitzky's inspired photography and the relentless arrogance of the leading man, I found myself sympathizing with the jungle more than the characters.

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