Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan have each been on their own downward career spiral for the last few years, so in a perverse way I suppose that it’s appropriate that they would hit rock bottom together with After Earth
(well, in fairness to Shyamalan I suppose this is a mild improvement on The Last Airbender and The Happening, but that isn’t saying much!). There is something almost miraculous about just how bad their collaboration turned out. Somehow a simple premise that is entirely action focused and a trim 90 minutes long minus credits is without a doubt the most tediously dull movie of the summer thus far.
Why the slow-creep specialist Shyamalan decided to transition into action movies is an absolute mystery, but with two under his belt now he’s proven that he is possibly the worst person in the world to take up the genre. For Smith, the film is the latest chapter in his quest to force the world to embrace his son Jaden with adoration and fame. It’s been an awkward journey thus far and this is by far the most awkward chapter given that Will came up with the story himself and it allows him to play out a perverse fantasy in which he can see and comment on everything Jaden does without being there. There’s probably some sort of uncomfortable metaphor there for big daddy Will’s career shepherding and I suppose it’s nice that it’s there given that despite the overly somber tone of After Earth, it’s certainly not a serious think piece sci-fi flick hinging on any social commentary or metaphor. Nope, the movie is just a collection of all the dull, pretentious trappings of hard sci-fi without any of the intelligence or fun.
It’s difficult to discern exactly what the futuristic concept is behind After Earth despite 20 plodding minutes of exposition to set it all up. Apparently some of the American press were issued dossiers setting up the world before they sat down in the theatre. I wasn’t so lucky and had to attempt to piece things together from what was actually on screen. Apparently, Earth was made inhospitable about a thousand years ago, so humanity made a new planet their home. The only trouble was that an alien race considers that planet to be their birthright, so they’ve unleashed an army of specially engineered monsters called Ursas to wipe out the human race. Eventually, the humans fought back with The United Ranger Corps, a specially trained army of Ursa-killers. Will Smith’s Cypher is the best of these Rangers because he’s mastered a technique called “ghosting” which completely removes any fear from his system. This makes the Ursas blind to his presence since their main form of human detection is smelling their fear-based pheromones. Got all that? Probably not, but let’s move on and pretend that you did.
Jaden Smith plays Kitai, a teenage Ranger-in-training who is desperate to join the Corps and fight alongside his father. Despite the fact that no other ranger is under 20-years-old and Jaden fails some sort of important exam, big Willy style talks his commanders into letting Jaden join him on their next mission. The Rangers are flying somewhere (it’s unclear) to drop off a sedated Ursa when suddenly the ship is struck by asteroids and forced to crash land on, you guessed it, Earth. Conveniently, Will and Jaden are the only survivors. Unfortunately, both of Will’s legs were broken in the crash and Jaden is forced to set out on a multi-day quest to find another part of the ship with a distress signal beacon. Armed with a strange blade weapon, and only a handful of life-saving oxygen tablets (apparently the air on earth is not suitable for humans, but don’t ask why because it’s never explained), Jaden sets out on his quest. Will follows and watches his every move from the crashed ship’s command center (he also performs impromptu surgery on himself while doing so, but again it’s never explained how or why). All of that set up happens in the first deeply confusing 20 minutes and from there the movie is an hour-long chase that never seems to get exciting or end.
Will Smith provided the story that was then taken over by M. Night Shyamalan and PC Gamer’s Gary Whitta and Poppa Smith should get plenty of the blame. This might not be based on an L. Ron Hubbard masterpiece, but After Earth is very much the former Fresh Prince’s Battlefield Earth, filled with all the theocentric fear philosophy and unintelligible sci-fi gobbledygook that makes up his religion of choice. The world is never properly explained, yet treated with gospel levels of seriousness as if the audience is somehow supposed to be wowed by the claptrap. Will also plays his role as a humorless jerk, and is so far outside of his comfort zone as an actor that it becomes laughable to watch. He spends the entire movie sitting in a chair watching the proceedings and really adds nothing beyond star power. The fact that he turned down the title role in Django Unchained because he didn’t feel it was a big enough lead role and then made this instead is deeply confusing. As for Jaden Smith, he might turn into a decent actor over time, but right now is a struggling youngster figuring out how the acting game works and should never have been asked to carry a movie solo like this. It’s like watching an ambitious teen struggle through his first lead in a high school play, but infinitely more painful since the project is a blockbuster film that will be released worldwide. The Smiths really need to stop this, “let’s make our kids famous” crusade. They just aren’t ready.
The fact that After Earth fell into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan is just sad. This is clearly job-for-hire (which means there’s no twist ending…sigh) and chances are he took it simply because he’s running out of ideas of his own. Shyamalan certainly knows how to frame a pretty shot and generate slow-burn tension. However, a survivalist blockbuster action movie is not the place for slow-burn tension and more often than not his patented directorial techniques make the material boring rather than exciting. There are only a handful of big action set pieces in the flick. One crash handled reasonably well (but shown twice to kill that good will with the audience) and then there are several fights between Jaden Smith and various CGI animals. These fights are completely ludicrous and never believable or exciting. As The Last Airbender proved, Shyamalan can’t direct an action scene to save his life and needs to stop trying. He’s a director with obvious talent, but that talent is suited to a certain style of thriller that he seems to have given up on. Between his failed directing job and the Smith family’s idiotic concept and dull performances, After Earth emerges as a big ol’ disaster. Sadly, it’s not even a fun disaster like The Happening that is at least worth a laugh because it’s so misconceived. Nope, this is just a boring waste of time, talent, and money. Hopefully the movie bombs big and bad enough for everyone involved to start doing a little second guessing in their careers. After Earth is the type of movie that happens when massive Halloween egos start to think every idea they have is pure gold. Seeing the movie will just encourage them to continue. The best option is to ignore it and hope that Shyamalan and Smith will retreat back to what they do best. So, let’s all agree that from this day forth we shall never speak of After Earth again. It’s for the best.