In the distant future, we screwed up again (don’t look at me, I recycle). Yeah, just like we did in Tom Cruise’s own enviro-guilt odyssey Oblivion from last month, we bungled planet Earth with all our clumsy human-ness and had to pack up our sleeping bags and get our asses to space. Earth itself became a quarantined rock in the galaxy, with toxins and creatures that have evolved to hate human beings. Humans now live on a planet where they can get their asses kicked by alien creatures who can literally smell our fear.
Learning about this sad reality is young Kitai (Jaden Smith), the son of famous general Cypher Raige (Will Smith). As a young soldier in training, Kitai lives in the shadow of his father’s myth. Cypher is the rare soldier who can fight the fear-smelling alien creatures without fear. In the world of After Earth, this is called “ghosting.”
Kitai experiences his own improvised soldier training from his father when a ship they are riding in makes a crash landing on Earth, leaving them the only survivors. With Cypher badly injured and confined to making emotional faces in a space chair, his scared straight son sets out to find a beacon that will get them a rescue ride home. Using futuristic communication, Cypher guides Kitai through the unknown world, which includes screeching baboons, surprise leeches, angry tigers, loud birds and a special guest.
Based on an original story concept from Will Smith, After Earth functions as if it was inspired by the lone man star power success of Smith’s previous I Am Legend, but now engineered so that Smith himself has to do the least work possible. While his eyes seem permanently ready to overflow tears, Smith’s interpretation of a soldier without fear is a blank expression. Chewing on this expression throughout After Earth, Smith gives his audience no reason to delve deeper and see what complicated emotions may be under a definitive projection of living without fear.
With Will Smith already confirming that his star power don’t shine like it used to, his son’s presence is of no help. Jaden Smith’s presence is a type of finisher (or “Fatality,” in Mortal Kombat terms) to whatever shred of charisma After Earth had left. Failing to create a likable character, Jaden Smith has to drag his bored audience through territory he is not fit for, with atmosphere he is not able to color. The young actor takes his own dive into emotional daring, with a tear-filled scene that becomes a weird balance of poignantly bratty and over-the-top desperation.
On paper, while being passed through the halls of Hollywood studios who consider Will Smith a star god despite his not having made a non-Men in Black movie since 2008, After Earth must have sounded terrible. It only makes sense that such a film would be made by M. Night Shyamalan, a writer/director who pulled off one trick successfully with The Sixth Sense and then continued to hack away at his filmography until even plants lost their subtlety with his disastrous disaster film The Happening (which my best friend Marty constantly tried to defend as “intentionally a B-movie.”) As Shyamalan somehow continues to make big films, disappointment and general hackery have now become a part of his authorship. Shyamalan bungled Avatar: The Last Airbender; made a joke out of his own fairytale with Lady in the Water; caused me to violently giggle at sudden death in The Happening; and now we have After Earth.
Shyamalan handles this father and son reunion as if it were another opportunity for him to push the limits of what it is like to exercise the least creative muscle possible and to suck away any of the mere entertainment that could be found in a world with a supposedly unpredictable environment. The thrills of this colossally boring movie are reduced to watching Jaden Smith run from CGI animals or having the audience deal with an excessive number of flashbacks to a single dramatic event.
Not to spoil a non-spoiler, but there are indeed no twists in this Shyamalan project. However, After Earth does strike as another example in which he exercises a strange excitement in disappointing his audience, by not twisting on his audience but building up to something and then simply giving up on them.
In After Earth, Shyamalan suggests that the survival of humans involves defeating Starship Troopers-esque aliens. What the audience gets, however, are scenes of Kitai scurrying away from angry Earth creatures. It’s like reducing the fear of bolting from a mass murderer, to watching someone scurry from a snarling dog behind a fence. And in that amazing comparison I have just made, it’s fair to say the domestic beast from The Sandlot is more disconcerting than anything Kitai faces in this movie. If you’re going to make a shitty movie, at least give us more killer aliens than rock-throwing baboons.
Thank composer James Newton Howard, as his swells provide the only bits of tension in After Earth. Even a final showdown between Jaden Smith and a special guest (no, not the dog from The Sandlot) lacks proper thrill to justify the film’s build up to it.
After Earth is a dud waiting to disappoint Smith fans, with watching the movie itself the least amusing part of the failure that this entire project is. If IMDb trivia is indeed the beacon of truth it purports to be, then word on the Internet is that this humdinger of a disappointment is primed to be a franchise, which is the indeed best bad part about this thoroughly weak experience. Considering how widely ineffective this film is, the proposition of expansion is profoundly egotistical, if not embarrassingly misguided. What can be expanded upon with such a story, when the mythology itself is hardly established? How could a franchise be made from this movie when I can’t even imagine its young star sitting through it without texting? Pro tip: if you want to make a franchise out of an original script, you don’t hire the guy who previously buried a film adaptation based on a cartoon series that came with its own, premade fan base.
Regardless as to how it is received, whether the movie succeeds in using nostalgic star power to buy its box office or not, After Earth is a rental-if-you-must, rip-off of a movie that practically insists on being boring. A profoundly dull version of “Take Your Son to Work Day,” chalk up After Earth as another Shyamalan disaster, as crashed by the waning power that is the Smith Enterprise.