First of all, do not mistake After Earth for a M. Night Shyamalan movie. It bears no resemblance to his past (save for a few signature camera angles.) He is clearly a hired gun, being used to spin a basic yarn about a father and son overcoming their differences to conquer overwhelming odds. Hell, his name was even left out of nearly all marketing materials. There was an audible chuckle in the audience when his name graced the screen after the final frame. All this being said, the movie still sucks and it’s not even Shyamalan’s fault. Now that’s a twist.
The film’s less than savory intentions are made clear in AE’s prologue when we’re given clunky back story exposition of our planets demise. Earth has become an uninhabitable wasteland because we didn’t treat it with respect (thanks a lot Obama.) Humans have been evacuated to a far-off planet called Nova Prime where we have a slight problem. Aliens called “Ursa’s” inhabit it and can conveniently smell human fear which they use to track and kill unassuming citizens. General Cypher Raige (Will Smith sporting an awful accent and Fresh Prince haircut) has mastered the art of “ghosting” wherein he can choose to eliminate fear making him a super soldier against the evil Ursa’s.
The back story is narrated by Cypher’s son Kitai (Jaden Smith) who has trouble relating to his father. He is training to be part of the rangers but is too much of an emotional wildcard. He wants to be like dad but can’t relate to his steely demeanor. When Cypher asks him to accompany him on a routine trip to another planet he jumps at the chance. What ensues is one of the films best action sequences when the ship hits an asteroid storm and crash lands on…Earth (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnnnn.)
The remainder of the films short (90-minute) runtime plays out like your basic Super Nintendo game. With the rest of the crew dead and both of Cypher’s legs broken Kitai must travel to the ships tail to retrieve an emergency beacon and call for help. Cypher literally shows a map of a straight line and says, “We are here, you have to get here…and there’s a bunch of scary shit in the middle with a boss at the end.” Ok, that’s not a direct quote but it might as well be.
Will Smith is one of the most charismatic movie stars on the planet and one of the few people remaining who can open a movie simply by being in it. The deadliest sin After Earth commits is incapacitating him. His real life son Jaden may one day prove to be a capable actor but he’s just not able to carry an entire blockbuster. He tries hard but lacks the presence required to ground himself in the films ridiculous CG-surroundings. This bizarre choice gives the film a sickening feeling that Will got his son a big-budget thriller for his birthday.
And with AE’s big budget you’d think it would yield something interesting on screen. Instead all of the expensive effects give us cheap looking baboons, eagles the size of city buses and slimy 6-legged aliens. A couple set pieces are inspired but the look is so inconsistent it’s never convincing.
After Earth’s story also gives the audience little to grasp which makes the short run time feel like an eternity. The father/son drama is silly and so self-serious it borders on parody. Will Smith conceived the story and it’s obvious he thought he’d stumbled on something profound. But profundity be damned, the basic post-apocalyptic imagery is inert.
For all the film’s problems it actually proved a positive by the end credits…Shyamalan can still direct. Sure his writing style is wooden and he coaxes relatively lifeless performances from his principal cast but on a basic level I did enjoy the style on display here. Since Signs, Shyamalan has failed to compel much more than snickers from a general audience. He fell prey to his own hype delivering clunker after clunker while sullying what little audience cache that remained. Yet, I still root for him with each release hoping he can recapture that early promise. After Earth: The Smith Family Apocalypse is certainly not the vehicle to spark a comeback but there is a flicker of hope here that a once promising director can recapture the magic.