I really wanted to like After Earth. It had all the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster: big budget, A-list actors, a pretty cool trailer that showcased some snazzy digital effects and it’s a science fiction movie. I stayed away from the marketing hype, hoping to enjoy the cinema experience for what it should be- an awe-inspiring journey into an unfamiliar world, complete with a compelling story and outstanding set pieces. I did get an unfamiliar world and a journey, but in all good conscience I can’t say it was inspiring or compelling, with precious little of the film outstanding.
After Earth tells the story of young Cadet Ranger Kitai Raige and his father, the celebrated legendary warrior General Cypher Raige, and how they cope after crash-landing on an alien and unforgiving planet. With his father suffering from a serious injury caused by the accident, Kitai must embark on a perilous quest to signal for help.
This is where After Earth falls apart. After a few brief flashes of Cypher’s physical and mental prowess, he takes a back seat and we’re forced to tag along with his petulant, pretentious son who, after a terrible exposition-filled opening monologue, I found incredibly hard to like and, as he fumbles his way through the plot towards the MacGuffin that will save the day with nothing more than a furrowed brow and a sulking pout, Kitai does very little to endear himself to the viewer as he struggles through uninspired set pieces, battling oversized and perpetually angry animals, consistently ignoring the advice of the seasoned professional that is his father, until he reaches the obvious and all too predictable finale.
After Earth is really nothing more than the story of a father and son, who remain distant after a family tragedy (that plays out through endless flashbacks) and are forced to spend time together by their long suffering wife and mother, set to the backdrop of a B-movie science fiction flick.
Oh there’s the usual sci-fi gadgetry; a colour changing skinsuit, a nifty stabbing stick and a wrist communicator that allows Father Raige to keep tabs on his boy, but even these seem like afterthoughts, all too familiar bits and pieces stolen from other parts of the sci-fi multiverse that I’m sure were only put there to make us, the audience, think ‘Yes, this is a sci-fi movie!’
Father and son double act Will and Jaden Smith play Cypher and Kitai respectively, and as much of the screen time is given over to Smith Junior, it’s clearly intended to be a star vehicle created by Daddy Smith for his wannabe actor son. Smith Senior, taking sole story credit for the feature, initially envisaged the film as a father-son camping trip that goes horribly wrong after a car crash, leaving the father injured and the son having to go for help. He took the concept to scriptwriter Gary ‘The Book of Eli’ Whitta and sought out the directorial expertise of a certain M Night Shyamalan. Somewhere in the mix the doomed camping trip transformed into what we see in the movie, with the big twist being the alien world the duo are stranded upon happens to be Earth a 1000 years in the future, after humanity has fled the planet.
I can’t help but think that the original concept would have made a much better film. This is the second time out for the Smith boys playing father and son, after The Pursuit of Happyness, and accusations of nepotism aside, both performers did a much better job in the heartfelt 2006 drama.
And then there’s that name. M Night Shyamalan. The once-lauded writer-director, a name now synonymous with failure, has remained suspiciously absent from any marketing blurb. I was quietly shocked to see Shyamalan attached to the film, but by that point it was too late and it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I settled into my seat. As it turned out said trepidation was most deserved.
The man who ruined The Last Airbender has surely parked himself in the director’s chair for the last time with this latest outing. If box office figures are anything to go by, After Earth has gloriously and quite spectacularly bombed in America, though much of the scorn is being heaped at Will Smith’s feet, with the movie-loving underground noting that it was actually Smith Senior who took on much of the directorial duties, leaving M Night to tackle the technical end of picture-helming; blocking shots, viewing dailies, approving digital effects, etc.
Dear me, the digital effects… It’s a real mixed bag with this one. A fair amount of the film was shot with spangly new ultra-high definition 4K technology, and in some scenes you can really tell, but in others the digital effects appear laughably unfinished, distractingly so, which only helped to hinder the already failing movie even further.
It really isn’t all bad though. There are some nuggets of gold hidden within this $130 million turkey, particularly the cinematography of veteran director of photography Peter Suschitzky and the understated performance of Sophie Okonedo as wife and mother Faia Raige, who gets precious little screen time, and who eagle-eyed viewers might recognise as Sithandra from 2005’s Æon Flux.
All said and done, After Earth could and should have been a much more entertaining and enjoyable experience. M Night Shyamalan has made some terrible films, though I’ll always hold a bit of a torch for him, as he penned and directed one of the greatest superhero films of all time; Unbreakable, which had Bruce Willis doing the gritty, dark superhero bit a good five years before Christopher Nolan had Christian Bale put on the cape and cowl.
It’s Jaden Smith that ends up being the problem; After Earth hinges on his portrayal of the boy Kitai going through a rite of passage, with his gruff and demanding father looking over his shoulder, criticising his every move. But I just couldn’t believe in the character, because in the back of my head I couldn’t separate the teenage whiney, pouty, petulant, entitled child from who I suspect Jaden Smith is alarmingly similar to in real life. I don’t want to sound like I’m jumping on the Jaden Smith-bashing bandwagon, but the starlet hasn’t got the acting chops to carry a summer blockbuster on his wiry shoulders. His father he is not.
Will Smith is no stranger to sci-fi, turning out decent performances in I, Robot, Men In Black and Independence Day to name just a few of the blockbusters he’s headlined. Does a lacklustre plot, shoddy effects work and a box office bomb mark the end of Will Smith’s acting career? Highly unlikely. Does it mean he’ll stay away from sci-fi for while? Quite possibly. Will he refrain from making any more father-son train wrecks? I really hope so.
You can view the trailer here.