Saturday, May 21, 2011

After Earth (A.E.)

Suppose you take a story that begins with the destruction of Earth and the near annihilation of the human race by aliens. Given the depressing nature of such a premise, you decide to cheer it up a bit by hiring George Lucas to write the script as an action-packed space opera and then to turn it into an animated feature film with a top notch animation crew that combines the best hand drawn talent (a la Walt Disney) with the best CGI people (a la ILM). What you'd turn out with might look something like Titan A.E.

Titan A.E. is the only fully animated film in my collection (Tron contains live action). It only barely made the list, and I think it is there just because it's one of those very unique celluloid creations. I decided to watch it for the second time last night and would like to attempt to describe some of that uniqueness. The first thing that stands out is the animation style itself. It is probably the best integration of hand drawn and CGI work I've ever seen. The hardest thing to do in CGI is create convincing human characters, so why not just hand draw them and leave the space ships, planets, and the robot-like hostile aliens in CGI format? Motion capture is also utilized when animating people in space suits. In order to smooth out the integration, most of the immediate environments of the main characters are also hand drawn. Although you can tell which is which, it is difficult to notice where they meet.

Staying with the animation theme, it seems that the set designers in the film had a love for space-scapes and created several very beautiful scenes, even though most of it is not at all realistic. A swamp lake covered with giant glowing spherical "hydrogen pods" extending via a network of vines from the surface. A cave-like nebula dust cloud that the ship flies through accompanied by "wake angels", creatures that, similar to dolphins on a ship's bow, like to ride the "energy wake" of space ships.
"Ice rings" which consist of giant computer generated star-shaped crystals that continually collide with each other and crumble as they do. The crystals were done with CGI and feature detailed ray tracing on the reflective surface faces. The other scenes were yet another skillful amalgam of CGI and hand painting. All very nice eye candy.

In general, the whole thing was given a top billing production. The original score was a combination of classical and modern rock pieces as is common in modern animated dramas, but the plot and characters are just a bit edgier than your average family film. The voice casting was so well matched and well performed that I didn't even realize I was listening to the voices of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, and many others I should have recognized. In short, a lot of cash was spent.

I found myself less happy with the script on this second viewing. Although I love the colorful characters which are up there in stature with any Lucas creation, the dialogue and situations are really no more than you might expect from a typical pop culture animated feature. I like the originality in working the angle of humans missing the home world and feeling marginalized, even though it is a bit oversimplified. But the big flaw that tips it on its side is an attempted plot twist where a few of the good guys turn out to be bad guys. The revelation is too abrupt and too soon, and then one of them turns back into a hero at the end which is even more crazy. The villains are very one-dimensional - basically robots bent on wiping out the human race (sounds a lot like the Cylons from BG doesn't it?). But they have some real neat controlled plasma like technology that allows you to "melt" into walls and come out on the other side.

According to Wikipedia, it didn't do well at the box office and recouped only about half of its $75M production cost worldwide. I can understand why. They really didn't know what audience they were targeting. The heavy plot premise is a bit daunting to begin with, suitable for hard-core sci-fi fans. The space action and love interest sidebar between Cale and Akima targeted teens, and the cutsie supporting characters were portrayed as if targeting young children. For me, it is this juxtaposition of approaches that actually adds to its originality. But it also makes it hard to predict who might actually enjoy it and who might cast it into the trash in disgust. You'll never know unless you watch it for yourself.


  1. Before there was Titan AE there was Starchaser the legend of Orin

  2. Hey, very cool. Thanks for the referral - and from the 80's even! I read up a little and it looks like this Starchaser film lays claim to the first hand-drawn and computer animation mix. It looks pretty basic - mostly the spacecraft. The trailer really shows off the smooth craft motions which actually look like they are moving in no gravity. I knew Titan was not the first, but I still maintain it may be the best so far. I'll have to rent Starchaser sometime to check it out.