Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Oblivion vs. After Earth, two CGI-centered action thrillers that chronicle two ill-fated missions to post-apocalyptic versions of Earth that are less than hospitable to the humans that used to inhabit them.
Leading up to the mythic end of the world this weekend, the number of apocalypse flicks seems to have skyrocketed. These two, to their credit, forgo the typical end-of-the-world mass hysteria sequence and pick up with return missions to Earth long after the fact. Oblivion sees Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough working together to rehabilitate drones around the world as part of what Cruise euphemistically calls "the mop-up crew." Complications arise when he is captured by a mysterious group of humans on a planet that was supposedly abandoned a long time ago, and it looks like his chances of leaving the planet are in danger.
After Earth sees another duo, Will Smith and his son Jaden, end up on a future, uninhabited Earth, though this time accidentally, after their spaceship collides into a meteor and they come crashing through the atmosphere. Their only mission, as Smith Sr. put it, is to survive, which doesn't look easy. In what reminds us of one of those computer-animated dinosaur specials that comes on National Geographic after midnight, the trailer introduces a whole cast of highly evolved and very lethal prey. The Smiths' prospect of returning (to wherever they came from) looks just as grim as Cruise's. While the details of their time on Earth are different, the idea behind each title is so similar we can't really find more interest in one than anther.
Each film stars a bona fide Hollywood powerhouse at its helm. This is Cruise's first big role since his divorce—not that it's any of our business, but the film definitely whets our pop-culture appetite. He can also act, let's not forget, and with such a small cast he gets a lot of screen time to prove it. A little too much, perhaps: at multiple points in the trailer, from his unexpected encounter with enemy forces to his rendezvous with the cryogenic corpse of a former lover (Olga Kurylenko), he comes off as a little too dramatic to be sympathetic. He emotes everything so visibly that there's no ambiguity to linger over in his performance.
Smith also indulges in quite a bit of melodrama in the trailer for After Earth (see: "Every decision we make will be life and death," intoned huskily over a shots of alien terrain), though it tends to come off as more relatable considering his concern for his young son. He also has experience with this kind of thing; it seems a little like a sequel to I Am Legend (this time, With Kids!). The rest of his monologue, which plays throughout the trailer, introduces more psychological interest. We're genuinely interested to see how that whole "fear is not real" motto serves him on a planet infested with lethally powerful animals trying to kill him, and more importantly how he'll balance all that with parenting. Overall, it promises to be a nuanced and more moving performance.
Advantage: After Earth
Each A-list leading man also comes with a handy sidekick. Andrea Riseborough is a new face to us, and we think we like her. Her character has a no-nonsense vibe that feels like an ever-necessary counter to Cruise's sentimental musings on the last Super Bowl at the beginning of the trailer. Later, as Cruise becomes embroiled in the mysteries of the other humans who took him hostage, she even threatens to leave him behind, proving that she's much more formidable than you might assume for the supporting actress in an action flick. It also helps that Cruise's romantic narrative is with that aforementioned past flame. It positions Riseborough as an independent and unpredictable agent—even more exciting when the mission already poses so many surprises.
Jaden Smith is adorable, though we wonder if he's still young enough for us to be able to say that. If The Pursuit of Happyness is any indication, he and Will can very compellingly translate their father-son relationship onscreen. The opening crash sequence is especially touching, but after that, Smith Jr. spends the next two minutes just making his confused-and-afraid face at different flora and fauna. He only gets one line in the trailer: a curt "No, sir" in response to his father's didactic ramblings. Outside of that, we don't get to know him very well, and our suspicion is that the full film won't do much better: he seems mostly like a cute child-shaped prop meant to evoke the audience's sympathies.
The threats that each lead faces on their respective Earths are pretty different. For starters, Cruise didn't really expect any threat at all, much less a fully armed colony of un-evacuated people led by a spectacled Morgan Freeman. What makes these enemies so interesting is that they're not necessarily his enemies: Freeman hints toward the end of the trailer that Cruise should "know the truth," which makes us think there is some serious interplanetary political wrongdoing afoot and totally undermines Cruise's loyalty as a member of Earth's expat class. Also somewhere in that mix of mysterious faces is Cruise's old lover, though he doesn't seem to remember her at first. Intrigue all around.
Smith's opponents are not human, and therefore are a lot less interesting from a character perspective. It's hard to find nuance in the sabertooth tiger trying to devour the lead character's neck, even if rendered in the most lifelike CGI. But the visceral, unthinking character of this threat makes for very distinct psychological drama Will and Jaden's part. There is no conscious or rational player for them to reason with, just the brute force and agility of a planet full of predators bent on ending them. It's exhilarating, but we wonder how it can fuel the entire film without getting a little old.
With so much surface-level resemblance, from the impressive pedigree of their small casts to the beautifully animated alien landscapes they explore, this competition came down to a hair. After Earth promises a good story, but Oblivion's looks pretty similar, only with two sides as opposed to After Earth's one.
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