It shouldn’t necessarily be too much of a shock at this point that once promising auteur turned walking punchline M. Night Shyamalan would craft yet another film that’s patently insufferable without the aid of a drinking game or a good sense of humour, but After Earth continues in the filmmaker’s long storied streak of high profile duds. The real twist here, however, comes not from Shyamalan’s shortcomings as a filmmaker, but from this dull and nonsensical sci-fi father and son story’s leading man and project progenitor: the usually reliable Will Smith.
It’s the distant future, and as is often the case, the Earth has been destroyed, evacuated, and declared uninhabitable. Survivors of massive environmental disasters and alien created genocidal monsters known as the Ursa now live on the distant planet of Nova Prime. On this distant outpost, famed military general Cypher Raige (Smith Sr.) has become a beloved warrior known for his ability to “ghost,” or not be seen by these monsters because he has no fear. His youngest son Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants so desperately to follow in his footsteps, but his emotional and impetuous nature cause him to not be accepted as a ranger, which I guess is some kind of special military rank for young folk. Eager to show his son the ropes, Cypher takes Kitai along on a mission that’s compromised following their ship getting stuck in a meteor shower – killing the crew and forcing them to land on inhospitable Earth. With only Cypher and Kitai left and with father having two broken legs and internal arterial bleeding, Kitai is forced to go off on his own to retrieve a homing beacon from the tail of the craft 100 kilometres away while dad watches his son’s back from the ship via satellite.
The specific story beats could make for an intriguing sci-fi epic, but the story and character dynamics are laughably lamebrained. There are far too many hollow inspirational speeches, astoundingly wrongheaded literary allusions to Moby Dick retrofitted to an even more halfassed environmental message, and worst of all a laundry list of questions of things that are never addressed, leading to the film not making a lick of sense.
What did Kitai do that was so bad that he can’t become a ranger? All we see him do is run faster than everyone else. Why are the Smith’s putting on terrible South African accents? Is it an apartheid thing that the rest of the film just isn’t attuned to? What are the dynamics of Kitai’s spacesuit that changes colour whenever danger is around if it’s just going to change seemingly at random? How is it that bloodthirsty baboons can’t cross a shallow river? If the air isn’t breathable and Kitai needs special discs to survive on his quest, how is it that his dad is fine dying in the middle of a bombed out ship? Furthermore, how is there so much lush vegetation and so many waterways if the world is inhabitable and devoid of useable oxygen? How the heck does Kitai eat and drink while he’s out for days on end? Why would Cypher try to fix a severed artery by cutting himself open and by not being a medic forcing himself to bleed out faster? Was that lengthy shot of Cypher also foregoing painkillers more than just a way to stay alert for his kid or was that some sort of Scientologist message? Is Will Smith a Scientologist? Is that still a thing people are wondering about? What am I going to have for dinner? Do I really want another burrito? How does the climax of the movie take place on a volcano and there’s hardly any lava? Is this movie less than two hours (because I don’t want to miss my train home because of this)? Are there six hours missing from this story to explain why I should even care in the first place?
These questions aren’t necessarily all that nitpicky or blanketly pithy when the world around these characters is so barely built and devoid of any sort of central inner logic. This isn’t MST3K levels of bad where you should just stop asking questions and relax. It’s maddening how vague and pathetically written the film is. Shyamalan had a hand in co-writing the final draft, but elder Smith gets story credit, so that battle of who screwed up worse seems to come to a draw.
If one were to accentuate the positive, it would really start and end with Jaden Smith since the film exists solely so Will can craft a star vehicle for his boy. Aside from being saddled with all the film’s dire expositional narration right out of the gate and the aforementioned ill advised accent, Jaden is quite good. At one point towards the end of the film, he even briefly becomes the almost uncanny, spitting image of his father. He can do action, and since his father never really leaves the ship for the majority of the film he handles the dramatic heavy lifting fairly well.
For what it’s worth, Shyamalan doesn’t totally screw the pooch. He still knows how to craft good looking action sequences (no matter how incredibly pointless they are, including a running bit with a giant vulture that has the worst payoff to such a mythical creature possibly in film history) and the scope is ambitious even in the scenery decidedly isn’t.
No, aside from a terrible story, the only person to blame here is Will Smith on every conceivable level. This really isn’t anyone else’s folly. Everything seems so calculated and constructed to fit his every seemingly crazed whim that it’s almost impossible to lay the blame anywhere else. Rocking a soul patch that’s oddly more offensive to the eye than John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth dreadlocks, he seems determined to play the least emotional character he’s ever played. He feels no fear, senses danger, and has a troubled past that causes his relationship with his son to often pass by at an arm’s length. Will seems to think this means reading every line like a monotonous robot scanning sentences off a page. When you go to see Will Smith in a film you expect passion, swagger, or at least something of interest. Here, Cypher (with equally the worst and yet best fitting character name ever) is just so bland because Smith probably doesn’t want to overshadow his son or the world that he created in his story. It’s not only a nepotistic set-up, but one that’s so awfully mounted that it will probably backfire quite badly in the long run.
There might some day be shot-by-shot analyses of everything wrong with After Earth, but I doubt it will even be that memorable to warrant it. It’s assuredly the worst film Will Smith has ever had a starring role in. It barely edges out The Pursuit of Happyness, which was also somewhat crafted to showcase a younger Jaden’s star power in a film where a headstrong dad neglects his kid, puts him constantly in harm’s way, and selfishly thinks he’s teaching his kin a lesson. It’s so full of ego that it’s just uneasy to watch. As for Shyamalan, this barely eclipses The Happening as the worst film he’s churned out simply because it isn’t funnier than that one. This is just dull, useless, and confusing stuff.