Written by Zac Platt.
After Earth’s trailer hooked me straight away. An original sci-fi story with Will and Jaden Smith in a desperate struggle against a romanticized vision of the forces of nature. But as quick as it came, any enthusiasm I had was washed away by the trailers caveat; director M. Night Shyamalan. For those wondering whether his recent critical and box-office failures have taught him some much needed humility, the answer is sadly a resounding no. Rather, he seems to have removed himself altogether and left After Earth a hollow mess with none of the personality or suspense of his early films, but all the unapologetic self-indulgence of his later ones.
The film’s plot sees decorated veteran Cypher (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) stranded on a now abandoned Earth, where the fauna have evolved to be deadlier than ever. Injured, Cypher sends Kitai to retrieve a MacGuffin in the form of a beacon that will get them rescued, all the while being pursued by a blind monster that can track people by sensing fear. Suffice to say, you can pretty much see all the film’s beats broadcast well before they even crash the ship. Worse than the paper thin plot, are the contrived obstacles thrown in to keep the film trudging along for those 100 very long minutes. Most notable are the ‘hotspots’ Katai must reach each night before the entire planet freezes over, except for these arbitrarily located circles that remain comfortably warm. Why? The film never feels the need to explain this or any of it’s other gaping plot holes.
Just as irritating as the ridiculous hurdles After Earth put’s up, are the useless tools it gives our hero to leap over them. Most notable is the concept of “ghosting”, where a man is so courageous he becomes invisible to his fear-sensing enemy and is able to get in close enough to kill with his high-tech sword. While embarrassingly obvious, it’s a concept I could see having some merit were there any reason this highly advanced society couldn’t just give their soldiers guns instead of the admittedly stylish blades they brandish.
This is absolutely a film that goes for style over substance. Unfortunately, in this case style is best compared to the ridiculous decorations found toward the end of an Ikea store that no one ever buys. Homes, hospitals and spaceships are all built with the same asymmetrical wicker and fabric design, and then saturated by holograms and gadgets to ensure you never forget it’s set in the future. I finally threw my hands up when Kitai reached some wreckage and I realized their ship was made from bamboo and sheet plastic.
Just as poorly realized as the film’s world is it’s cast. The most complex character in the entire film is a ridiculous CGI bird, whose sub-plot I still can’t quite believe made it into the final script. Both Kitai and Cypher stumble through the film utterly indifferent, with only some ‘hotspots’ of jarringly exaggerated melodrama to spice it up. Will Smith has never been as boring or wooden as he is in After Earth. The father-son drama is incredibly forced, their chemistry is nonexistent and every joke falls so flat you can barely tell why the characters are smiling.
The above criticisms aside, After Earth’s biggest failure is it’s complete lack of identity. Is it a family drama about a son trying to prove himself? An examination of the constraints of fear, and the liberation when it’s overcome? A commercial for Earth’s powerful and magnificent fauna, so unexplored by the modern blockbuster? No. Shyamalan teases at many themes, but fails to ever successfully explore any. Most likely, After Earth is the nail in the coffin for any of the talent or promise this once gifted director pissed away with his pretentiousness and pride. My opinion though, is that it’s just a waste of time.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10