At first glance, it might seem touching that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith would produce a movie in order to turn their son into a star; after all, what parent does not want a child to follow in his/her footsteps? On closer inspection, however, AFTER EARTH borders on child abuse. Expected to exude macho charisma and dramatic gravitas, poor Jaden Smith (who was actually good in THE KARATE KID) winds up looking like a nervous child who, forced to play baseball by his father, strikes out with the bases loaded, his public humiliation aggravated by unrealistic paternal expectations. Not that Jaden Smith deserves to shoulder the blame: the film intended to serve as his star-vehicle is so badly written and directed that even Will Smith’s prodigious star charisma is dimmed to near invisibility.
There is a brief flash of interest at the very beginning, with a handful of shots cut together to show that Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) has been stranded on an unfamiliar world by the crash of a spaceship. Almost immediately, however, the succinct visual story-telling gives way to a voice-over exposition dump that sets the tone for the rest of the film: Humanity ruined Earth, so they had to move elsewhere, but we encountered aliens who bred monsters called Ursa that hunted us by smelling our fear. (Were we invading the alien’s planet, or were they trying to kick us out of our new home? This is never clarified.) Kitai’s father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) learned to master fear, making himself invisible to the Ursa – a technique known as ghosting.
With that out of the way, we then embark on a flashback to set up the situation we have already seen. Cypher was on his way to a mission to release an Ursa; he brought estranged Kitai along in the hope of a little father-son bonding. After the crash, their only hope for survival is to secure a rescue beacon located in the tail section of the ship, which broke off and landed miles away.* With Cyper’s legs broken, it falls to Kitai to make the hazardous trek on his own. Unfortunately, he and his father are not quite the only survivors of the crash; the Ursa is out there roaming as well. Kitai, we learn from a later flash back (there are a few of them), was traumatized as a child when he saw his sister killed by an Ursa. Anyone want to guess what the dramatic conclusion of the film will be?
In case you missed the metaphor, AFTER EARTH is not only about living up to daddy’s expectations; it is also about mastering your fear. On screen, this translates to 90 minutes of Kitai sniveling, followed by the obligatory and totally expected final-reel moment when he man’s up, puts on his manly brave face, and bravely battles the Ursa. The sudden metamorphosis to virtual superhero, enhanced with computer-generated action gymnastics, reminds us of how much better this moment worked in THE MATRIX.
For such a simple – but potentially emotional – idea, AFTER EARTH is surprisingly muddled. For some reason, it is not enough that Kitai is emotionally scarred by the sight of his sister’s death; he also suffers from the belief that his father expected him to save her somehow – a ridiculously tall order for a mere toddler, and one that Cypher never contradicts (what a dad!). For some other reason, the adventure play out on Earth, which was supposedly destroyed by pollution and warfare but looks surprisingly verdant, all things considered. (Press notes indicate that a thousand years have passed, but viewers could hardly be blamed for thinking the emigration from Earth took place within living memory of the characters.) Also, we are told that everything on the planet has evolved to kill man, which seems rather extraordinary considering that no human has set foot there in a long time.
Director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan (whose chance of recapturing his THE SIXTH SENSE glory seems to recede with each new film) emphasizes the sentimental aspects of the father-son relationship, to mawkish effect. He also seems unable to handle the heroics and the suspense convincingly; the film feels like an after-school special in which triumph of the young protagonist is a foregone conclusion. It hardly helps that the climax features Kitai wandering around a mountaintop with the rescue beacon held aloft like a cell phone in a “can you hear me now” commercial.
Jaden and Will Smith share a rare on-screen moment together.
To be fair, Shymalan is saddled with the vehicle he was handed by Will Smith, which is not only misguided but also misleading. Though the trailer is cut to suggest a father-son adventure, the story is actually contrived to sideline the elder Smith so that Jaden can take center-stage for the majority of the running time, which he spends out in the wild while receiving motivational instructions via radio. With his usual jovial persona well submerged, Will Smith comes across as a stiff; his attempts to emote while stuck in a chair and watching the action from a distance become wearisome rather quickly. With other characters restricted mostly to flashbacks, that leaves little to break the tedium.
The result feels less like a drama than an instructional video: how to survive on an alien planet. And not a particularly inspirational one. “Fear is a choice” – the catchphrase emblazoned on the advertising art – is just not as pithy as, say, “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Technical credits are mostly impressive (Peter Suschitzky’s location photography makes the film look gorgeous), but some of the special effects have a slightly cartoon quality – which might be intentional, considering the overall juvenile tone.
There are one or two brights spots. In particular, there is a glorious eagle (computer-generated) who provides whatever heart the film has, easily upstaging Jaden Smith. For some reason, Shyamalan’s brand of hokum works well with animal characters, whose lack of complex, believable personalities is not an issue. The effectiveness of these moments suggests that AFTER EARTH might have worked better as an animated movie; the stylization of the form could have provided a buffer to help audiences swallow the treacle.
In any case, the old show biz adage about not working with children or animals now needs to be extended to include the phrase “even if the animal is CGI.” It is an amusing irony that, in a film designed to showcase the child, it turns out to be the animal who steals the show.
AFTER EARTH (Sony Pictures Release: May 31, 2013). Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Written by Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, from a story by Will Smith. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes. Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere.