After Earth (United States, 2013)May 31, 2013
The sad truth about After Earth is that not only is it difficult to find things it does well, but there are numerous examples of outright incompetence dotting the landscape. Outside of some nice visuals, it's impossible to find a reason to recommend the film, which feels overlong at 100 minutes as it plods through a tiresome adventure quest that sends a boy out into the wilderness on his own in a hostile environment prowled by bad CGI animals and stupid plot contrivances. When it comes to bringing animals to life on a computer, someone should have consulted Ang Lee. If the lions and eagles in After Earth had looked remotely believable, maybe I wouldn't have occasionally entertained the idea that this big budget misfire was intended to be a parody.
M. Night Shyamalan has fallen so far from grace that Columbia Pictures elected not to use his name in the marketing of After Earth. This time around, Shyamalan's trademark third-act twist is missing in action - as is anything resembling competent storytelling. The project feels stillborn. The characters are emotionally neutered; the average viewer won't care about them. The pacing is plodding and uneven. The story trajectory is so obvious that one of Shyamalan's cheesy surprises would have been welcome, but the director is stuck in Last Airbender mode and that's not a good thing.
The story opens with a B-movie sci-fi prologue - kind of like a Starship Troopers without its tongue planted in its cheek. The setup is that more than 1000 years in the future, mankind has abandoned Earth and set up shop elsewhere (second time in six weeks that's happened; it's becoming a bad habit). After fighting (and winning) a war against aliens called the Ursa (ugly, generic space creatures), they're putting things back together. Supreme big wig military honcho Cypher Kaige (Will Smith) and his estranged son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), become stranded on Earth when their crippled spaceship crash lands, killing all aboard except the two Kaiges. With Cypher badly wounded, Kitai must hike 100 km across country to find the tail section of the ship which contains the rescue beacon. Along the way, he is menaced by a number of Earth's mutated creatures and a displaced Ursa who can "smell his fear." Flashbacks reconstruct the Kaige's family life before Kitai's sister was killed.
After Earth's intention is to highlight father/son bonding and Kitai's coming of age through extraordinary circumstances. Both themes are botched. With Will and Jaden Smith sharing only a handful of scenes, the relationship stagnates as they communicate first by a video device and then not at all. The screenplay's inept attempts to transform Kitai from a frightened kid into a hero are equally unconvincing. At his best, Kitai is an irritating whiner and his sudden, forced "discovery" of key survival qualities is laughable.
There's something appealing about the notion of a boy alone on a hostile world fighting to survive. The journey can be nail-biting and at times exhilarating (I'll once again reference Life of Pi). Unfortunately, Shyamalan transforms it into a connect-the-dots excursion into the obvious. There's never a sense that Kitai is in any real danger. When he's chased by a large number of baboons, we know he's going to get away. When a parasite poisons his blood, we know he's going to inject the antidote. The problem isn't that Kitai survives the ordeal but that his survival is never in doubt. There's no suspense or excitement - just boredom.
Can a lion's share of After Earth's deficiencies be laid at the feet of Jaden Smith? For whatever reason, he proves unsuited to the role (in contrast to The Karate Kid) but it's unclear how much of his overwrought, clumsy performance is a result of limited innate ability and how much derives from a bad screenplay wanting to highlight Kitai's immaturity and the coldness of his relationship with his father. As for Jaden's real life dad, Will Smith, After Earth doesn't require him to do more than adopt a dour persona and spend 75% of the film trapped alone in a dilapidated spaceship with two broken legs. His thousand-watt charisma has been disconnected. Once or twice, I thought the film might venture into Rear Window territory, but After Earth lacks that kind of ambition.
After Earth makes the similarly-motivated Oblivion seem a lot better realized than it did upon a first viewing. In a time when post-apocalyptic stories have become popular (a trend that illustrates something about a cultural mindset), After Earth falls into almost every imaginable pitfall and lies near the nadir of the overstuffed sub-genre. The film fails not only as science fiction but as a drama and an adventure. But, hey, that herd of buffalo sweeping across the plains looks damn impressive.
After Earth (United States, 2013)
Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith
Screenplay: Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, based on a story by Will Smith
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures