This last couple weeks I have had the privilege of being able to see three movies in the theater. The first was Star Trek: Into Darkness. The second was Iron Man 3. The most recent and final entry was After Earth, and interestingly it is the one I want to say the most about. So much that I am going to break my rants into sections. Post one is about the premise and background story.
The movie starts by force-feeding us important information during the opening credits. This is supposed to be world-building, but it comes off as a rushed afterthought. I label it a force-fed afterthought because they tell us the effects of the story without telling us really what the causes were. We are told humans can't live on Earth, yet moving to a new star system is somehow a more effective choice? We have the technology to "start over" on a new planet, but that technology isn't sufficient to be used here? We can travel faster than light (required to move out of our star system within our own lifespan) but we can't deal with the environment?
We also find out that there are aliens, but that fact quickly gets pushed aside, because humans apparently aren't much of a threat to them. Instead of using conventional weapons, they breed huge six-legged creatures that "smell our fear" and kill us off. I was then immediately wondering why an alien race with spaceships would bother breeding a creature to attack humans in such a context-dependent fashion. Add to that the idea of hermetically sealed space suits already existing with today's technology, and the "threat" seems more like humans just being too stupid to survive, which would explain why we are treated as more of an experiment than a true problem.
I mean, humans are "smelly" creatures already, looking at how our modern hunters still need to use things like deer urine to cover their scent. Why the need to breed creatures that "smell" only what humans give off in a heightened emotional state? Why cannot these big creatures smell at least as well as the common deer? Why is the critical plot point that the main character is still mentally "stuck" in a sealed box that hid his odors during a childhood raid, yet nobody is fighting these creatures in sealed space suits?
Next we'll take the name for the unnamed alien race's attack dogs, the Ursa. It wasn't until the word was shown on screen that I realized they were saying "Ursa" and not "Ussa". They should have made it "Ussa", and perhaps gone with a Carribean accented "ooo-sah" pronunciation. Anyway, Ursa means bear in Latin, but the creatures had more in common with insects than bears, especially given the fact they come from eggs. This marks the first and most repeated instance of "we're calling it this because we want to, not because it makes sense."
This goes the same for the "cutlass", the shape-shifting bladed weapon used by the "Rangers" to dispatch the Ursas. Guns don't apparently exist, and again neither do space suits...er...space suits with helmets and hermetic seals. Well no, they have that as seen in the end of the film. Why the heck are they fighting these big creatures bare-handed and in clothing that breathes?
That the original back story for the main character's prowess is so easily deflated, I can only assume one is meant to just take it at face value and move on.
Here are 10 points that would make a much more interesting setup that wouldn't have required retooling the entire film plot of father/son survival. In logical order, here's how to make it better:
1) Earth was abandoned for cloudy and uncertain reasons, but it was determined that humanity had a better chance of survival spreading to the stars than just staying on Earth. Earth is abandoned and thought to be a barren wasteland.
2) The unnamed alien race is replaced by a "scientific psycho-terrorist" faction within humanity which espouses radical "teachings" about the psychological development of humans. They go by the name "Serena's Hand".
3) The Ussas are a violent propaganda tool to try and enforce their message, dropped when a settlement rejects their "teachings". The Ussas are still blind, but have both good hearing and smell. They are much smaller, maybe 250~300lbs. They are aesexual, and can lay one or two eggs a week so long as they are being fed, but have a short lifespan as to prevent them from
4) The "future society" is a caste-system, with workers and civilians not being trusted to possess firearms, or even property, but they are travel and move about freely among settlements, as the government maintains a magnanimous impression among the public so long as the work gets done. There are talks of other, bigger, civilizations of humanity that have left this smaller group of planets alone.
5) The "Rangers" are changed to a "Guard", and they are citizens/workers deemed worthy of having the skills to defend their fellow workers when needed, but are not either capable of, ready for, or can continue in full military service.
6) The Guard rotate between settlements on both their own and other planets to "cultivate their love of their interplanetary society". Guards also have non-combat skills which relate to survival in a space settlement, and they work as educators when on rotation.
7) The "cutlass" is renamed to something like the "multi-tool", and its technology and function is shown being used for domestic and/or utilitarian purposes, with "combat" models being a contraband item for any but Guards.
8) The kid's backstory remains largely the same. Sister was killed by an Ussa, but he was spared and has survivor's guilt. Does well in school, but is not a "team player" when it comes to being a Guard.
9) The father decides to take his kid on a last leg of duty before retirement. The father's special skill is stated to be hostile environment survival, and it is implied that he has helped defend remote and new settlements and has garnered respect for his ability for survival despite bad odds.
10) The "psycho-terrorists" attack the ship and after it being damaged, the survivors are forced to enter stasis as the ship autopilots and ends up marooning the kid and his dad on an unexpectedly lush Earth. The ship still breaks apart, the father still injured, and there are still Ussa running amok.
Note that these alterations only change the backdrop for the story, and still allows for a father/son survival story in the face of dangerous odds on a hostile "Earth". It also adds a little more common sense as to why there are apparently limits in technology and resources. Stuff like guns exist, but they wouldn't have been on a civilian transport.
While the father teaches his son the skills of a Guard and the kid learns the father's wilderness survival skills, the two bond and grow closer together, but discover that mere survival may not be enough.
Stay tuned for a fully revised story arc and plot line. :)