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After Earth
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Sony Classical / 2013 / 57m

M. Night Shyamalan seems to be one of the most critic-proof directors around, with people flocking to see his films no matter how rubbish everyone says they are.  Even his last one, The Last Airbender, made a comfortable profit around the world despite being savaged by seemingly everyone who saw it.  So he gets to keep on being given huge budgets to make new films, with his latest being After Earth, which sees father and son Will and Jaden Smith finding themselves on earth in the distant future long after the planet has been abandoned by humanity.  Early reviews suggest that by Shyamalan’s recent standards it’s actually not that bad.

For most readers of this website, by far the best thing about Shyamalan’s continued allowance to make big-budget films has been the music composed for them by James Newton Howard, who must have some sort of special “make me better” button which can only be pushed by Shyamalan, since in general his scores for this director have been in a higher league than most of his other ones over the last decade or so.  There have been exceptions, of course, with some excellent scores coming for other directors’ projects; sadly After Earth may be the first exception going the other way, in that actually it isn’t really anything special at all.  The odd thing is that the opening and closing portions of the album contain music which is truly spectacular – but they surround some exceptionally pedestrian wallpaper which dominates much of the central section.

James Newton HowardThere’s a Remote Control air running through a fair chunk of the score, and that starts in the opening “The History of Man”.  It doesn’t come with the associated cheap sound, so there’s still enjoyment to be gleaned – but by far the biggest pleasure in that opening piece is the frustratingly brief passage of one of the score’s main themes, which has a wonderful religioso feel to it, and is explored slightly further in the similarly brief “I’m Not Advancing You” which follows.  The other main theme in the score – which is also fantastic – gets a full airing in “Pack Your Bags” – the piano lends a wonderful domestic-sounding touch and even if the piece does become disappointingly generic once the Remote Control percussion is added, it’s still a certain highlight.

Then, sadly, the problems set in.  It’s only 48 seconds long, but “Leaving Nova Prime” is pretty much the whole middle section of the score in a microcosm – it just sounds like musical wallpaper, not having anything particularly interesting to add to proceedings.  Around 45 minutes of the hour-long album are in that vein and, while most of the world of soundtrack listeners would rather jump off a cliff than see a cue left off an album, there’s no doubt that this album would be vastly superior had it been more judiciously-produced, with what seems distinctly like filler material left off.  It is, in a word, boring.

When the main themes appear things immediately pick up, often to a spectacular degree, so I imagine that those so inclined could produce a wonderful playlist from the material on the album.  They just wouldn’t pick much from the 45 minutes in the middle, except probably for the gorgeous “Abort Mission” with its exquisite cello solo and a couple of repeats of the main themes.  It is all the way up to track 19, “The Tail”, that things liven up a bit, with a bit of Batman Begins-style action – it isn’t even all that good, but at least it offers a little filip to the somnambulant listener.  Most will drop off again for another forty winks for a few more tracks after that before the fun really begins for the last few minutes of the album.

The ominous strains of “See the Peak” offer a hint at the epic nature of what is to come, which is unleashed in full over the concluding tracks.  “Run to the Volcano” with its tribal sounds is probably the first really interesting piece of action; the plaintive cry in “Somewhere to Hide” is genuinely chilling; then after another lull (much briefer this time), “Ghosting” offers some fine action material, the main theme returning in heroic fashion.  The other theme reappears in the beautifully warm, lush “I Wanna Work With Mom”, the score finally reaching the kind of epic heights one associates with this composer/director collaboration.  The titular finale track brings things to a rousing conclusion.

It’s so frustrating, really, that an album which scales the heights this one does towards its start and end has such a deep valley running through the middle – and “middle” really refers to around 75% of it.  It’s hard to say avoid it, because the good parts are really very good, but given how dull the majority of it is, it’s even harder to recommend it.  It’s by far the least impressive of Howard’s score albums from Shyamalan films.

Rating: ** | |

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  1. Christian K (Reply) on Thursday 30 May, 2013 at 22:14

    Is the brevity of most of the track equally a shortcoming (pun was unavoidable)?

  2. Craig Richard Lysy (Reply) on Thursday 30 May, 2013 at 22:27

    Hmm, this is a disappointing revelation. The large number of tracks was an initial concern, as it is hard to develop any melodic flow with short cues, but “filler music” is a real bummer. Well, hopefully I can extract enough for a decent suite.

    All the best James.

  3. James Southall (Reply) on Thursday 30 May, 2013 at 22:39

    Christian – yes, but there are bigger problems.

  4. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. (Reply) on Friday 31 May, 2013 at 19:00

    James, (except for a few spectacular titles) your review perfectly describes the Newton-Howard template of a miserly few, if beguilingly stunning themes {be they mystical, heroic or love} surrounded by a plethora of functional but ordinary ‘filler-music’. And it’s not as though his creativity has reached burnout levels….I doubt the output, these days, exceeds four scores per annum. I will order the CD to indulge in the beauty of those premier Newton-Howard sequences you so admired > be they a mere fifteen minutes of score time. Thanks for such an insightful critique.

  5. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Saturday 1 June, 2013 at 00:58

    something about that jnh pic rubs me the wrong way

  6. Score lover (Reply) on Friday 7 June, 2013 at 11:04

    I love this score. And JNH delivered a perfectly fitting soundscape for this movie.

    It might fall short of the melodic brilliance of his previous collaborations with Shyamalan. But this film has long stretches of no score and only subtly comes in for a few moments. The representation on the CD is accurate.