Is “After Earth” a noble attempt at creating a fresh and entertaining science fiction experience or is it a glaring example of Hollywood nepotism hidden under the guise of a $150 million summer movie? I wish I had an answer to that question. To be honest, at times it feels like both. “After Earth” has some good ideas and occasionally shows promise. Unfortunately it also sometimes feels like a shameless promotion of Jaden Smith by his very popular and wealthy family – a debutante ball of sorts set on a uninhabitable and deadly future Earth instead of a posh, stuffy mansion or ballroom.
“After Earth” found its genesis in the mind of Will Smith. He, his wife, and brother-in-law prepared to produce the film and M. Night Shyamalan would sign on to co-write the screenplay and direct the picture (a little detail that didn’t get much press due to the filmmaker’s recent line of box office flops). Will Smith would also use his fading star power to star in the film along his real life son Jaden. Now all of these family connections don’t automatically equal a bad movie. On the other hand poor writing, poor acting, and poor directing usually does and it’s hard to believe that “After Earth” was intending as something other than a starring vehicle for the younger Smith.
The story starts out in a pretty familiar fashion. Through narration we are once again told how we destroyed the Earth eventually making it uninhabitable for humans. Therefore a full evacuation of the planet is ordered (I bet that was an undertaking). 1,000 years pass and humans are enjoying life on the newly settled Nova Prime. But then we get the ominous line “they were not alone”. Aliens are also there and they battle the humans for Nova Prime. Enter the Ranger Corp, a militaristic peacekeeping group who use a goofy technique called ghosting to fight the fear-sensing aliens. Ghosting removes all fear making the Rangers undetectable, blah, blah, blah.
Cypher (Will Smith) is an accomplished Ranger General but a harsh authoritarian father to his struggling son Kitai (Jaden Smith). Cypher is convinced to carry Kitai with him on his proverbial ‘last mission before retirement’ in hopes the two can get some much needed bonding time. As you can probably guess things don’t go according to plan. An asteroid shower, a wormhole, and a crash-landing on the now deadly and evolved Earth put a damper on things. To make matters worse Cypher is seriously injured and Kitai is the only one who can find a beacon that is in the lost tail section of their ship. Without the rescue beacon they will surely die.
I wish I could say there were some interesting or compelling moments in the buildup to the crash on Earth. Unfortunately I can’t think of any. The entire premise seemed overly familiar and the science fiction itself lacked any sense of ingenuity or awe. An even greater problem is with the family dynamic. The central father-son relationship is only allowed a few brief scenes to develop. Instead of appealing and believable it comes off as
stiff and hollow. Faia (Sophie Okonedo) is tossed in to try and inject some warmth into her husband and son’s relationship and we get some random flashbacks scattered throughout the film which attempt to add a little backstory. Neither attempts are very effective.
But you would think things would liven up once they crash-land, right? This is where the movie’s ideas show some potential yet are never realized. There is some pretty scenery and the depiction of Earth is mildly interesting. But it’s still the same vapid and plodding mess just in a prettier location. I mean how can such a vivid concept be so lifeless and dull? Shyamalan does little to help. He does frame three or four fairly memorable shots but other than that everything is fairly underwhelming.
And speaking of dull let’s talk a little bit about the performances. I know many people are big fans of Will Smith. I’ve never really got that. Here he gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen this year. The role calls for him to be ultra-serious but I found him to be ultra-annoying. He’s constantly making this weird sullen face and speaking in this low monotone consisting mostly of grunts and grumbles. He’s dull, wooden, and uninteresting. And that’s before he takes the pain pills with the holographic warning label marked “extreme drowsiness”. His performance really flatlines after that. And Jaden isn’t much better. I’m sorry, but he just can’t carry a movie. He shows virtually no acting chops here which only adds to the movies laundry list of problems.
I could talk more about Shyamalan’s lackluster direction, the mediocre CGI, or the predictable ending. Ultimately I think you get the point. “After Earth” is a sleep-inducing bore that hasn’t the material or performances to rise above its faults. In fact, the material and performances ARE some of the bigger faults. In the end “After Earth” will do nothing to reignite Will Smith’s fading light, reinvigorate M. Night Shyamalan’s once promising career, or prove that Jaden Smith is a good actor. It will however frustrate you, bore you, and remind you of a dozen other things you could be spending your time on.