Heading into AFTER EARTH, I knew the next couple hours were going to be one of the most severe tests of patience I’ve ever gone through. On one hand, you’ve got the trio of Will and Jaden Smith (two actors who have left plenty to be desired for me in their films) and filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (who I’ve found has only made one quality film – 2000’s UNBREAKABLE). But at the opposite end of the spectrum, there exists the framework for a story about a guy in dire straights teaching his son how to become a man when the situation forces such responsibility upon them swiftly, and, as a father with a young son of my own, films like that have affected me in an entirely new way in recent years. I can identify with this idea of wanting to be able to raise your boy to be able to take care of himself once you’re not around anymore, and, on an emotional level, I’ve found myself connecting with this sudden struggle with mortality that has you wanting to leave your mark on this world in the only way you can in such a moment, imparting all the wisdom you can in your children for them to carry it forward into time. Therefore, I was quite curious myself to see which feelings would triumph in this new piece of sci-fi.
AFTER EARTH isn’t a terrible film, not by any stretch… but that doesn’t mean it’s a very good one either. If anything, it showcases both the good and the bad sides of Shyamalan at this point in his career as a filmmaker. It’s probably the better of the films he’s made in recent years (although I’d settle for just his writing on DEVIL instead of what he’s done behind the camera), but that’s not really saying much now, is it? When you’re comparing AFTER EARTH to the dog shit of THE HAPPENING and THE LAST AIRBENDER, of course it’s going to give off the faint scents of a rose. But there are signs of the director that made THE SIXTH SENSE such an immense hit and at least the first half of SIGNS really good, and it’s when Shyamalan allows himself some room to build tension slowly that AFTER EARTH shows signs of brilliance. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between as the rest of the film is torpedoed by the horrendous acting “talents” of Jaden Smith. Seriously… I wouldn’t doubt that Lil’ Smith went to Mom and Dad and told them that he wanted to be a movie star, and, as a result, they’re doing their best to be supportive by throwing their weight and money around in order to try making it happen for him. But this kid has no acting chops whatsoever. In fact, it can be quite painful to watch, as it’s clear that either his parents’ resources should be going into either getting him more acting classes or finding something else for him to do with his life. I realize he’s young, but after atrocious performances in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE KARATE KID and now this, I’m not sure it’s going to get better anytime soon.
Shyamalan sets off with a promising canvas. Earth was decimated 1000 years ago due to our own selfish behaviors, and the human race has been forced to evacuate and find a new home out there in the galaxy. Settling on Nova Prime, they’ve found a place already inhabited by alien lifeforms who love nothing more than to slaughter these new intruders. The United Ranger Corps. was established in order to protect, yet even they are in danger, since these particular predators – the Ursa – smell our fear, and that’s how they hunt us. However, there is one man who has managed to single-handedly save humans from extinction, and that’s Master Commander Cypher Raige. He has developed the ability to “ghost,” which means he moves about free of fear, undetected by this enemy life form, allowing him to fight back with maximum effectiveness. He has sacrificed a great deal in order to help the human race, and is ready to finally head off into retirement to spend more time with his family after one final mission. It’s on this flight that he’ll be taking his incredibly immature and whiny son Kitai (played by Jaden). To say that there is a rough relationship between father and son would be an understatement, and it’s hard to say exactly who is to blame for this familial deterioration. The stress of a major loss in the family probably factors in, but it could also be due to the fact that the elder Raige functions in the home as a commanding officer and not so much a dad. Not being home a lot of the time, coming home and operating your family with a military mindset is hardly the way to endear yourself to your kids… but what other choice might Cypher have when his son is full of entitlement and attitude, believing he should be accepted into the Ranger program himself simply so his dad can be proud of him, and not because he’s in any way, shape or form ready for the job? Not more than 15 minutes into AFTER EARTH, we already have Kitai throwing his first tantrum in order to establish himself so favorably with us, and don’t worry… there will be plenty more where that came from.
Taking his kid along for this last mission so they can try to bond and get to know each other a bit better, you know things aren’t going to go according to plan. The ship they’re traveling on is forced into a crash landing back on this uninhabitable Earth from the past, and with Cypher suffering two badly broken legs and their equipment, including a very important emergency distress beacon being damaged in the wreckage, it’s up to Kitai to head out into the wilderness to find the tail end of the fuselage, recover the other beacon, which hopefully is in working condition and fire it off in order to be rescued. While he’s doing that, he’ll still have to contend with an endless amount of animal species on the planet who have now apparently evolved to kill humans and air that is hardly breathable without some liquid capsules that need to be ingested every few hours. He may not have been advanced in his Ranger training, but he’s going to be thrown into the fire now when it’s a matter of life or death. Recover the beacon, and they have a chance to survive. Don’t, and they die. Oh… and let me not forget to mention the very dangerous Ursa that the ship was carrying as cargo for some ridiculous reason which has now escaped… so yeah, it’s officially the worst case scenario for Kitai to deal with, but he’ll have the benefit of having his well decorated father as his eyes and ears every step of his trek, offering up his expertise to help guide a successful mission. I’m sure there are far worse people to be imparting wisdom and knowledge on you in these circumstances.
After a horrendous voiceover opening delivered by Jaden which sounded more read than performed that had me dreading the rest of the film, I managed to settle into AFTER EARTH based entirely on the performance of Will Smith. This is hardly the charming and entertaining Will Smith that usually pops up. Instead we get a very stern character who seems to be incapable of exhibiting any type of emotion. It’s a rather drab role for Smith to take, but in being this man who essentially put being a soldier first in front of being a husband and a father, I could understand the position Cypher Raige found himself in. It’s Will Smith who grounds the film, showing a hero who surviving amputees feel compelled to stand before in order to properly salute yet one who has never managed to connect with his own son. He’s been so concerned with staying alive and protecting not only his family but every other human who practically relies on him for safety that he never took the time to appreciate or understand who it is that he’s fighting for.
Shyamalan incorporates some really interesting ideas about fear into the script co-written with Gary Whitta, where the abstract idea is described as a product of our imagination. It’s a choice we make and choose to accept, yet it’s not real. With some intelligent concepts like that and what looked to be a fairly predictable coming-of-age story about a boy fighting to receive the love and respect of his father, getting the torch passed on, AFTER EARTH showed signs of promise. There’s one scene in particular of Kitai being chided by some crew members on the ship to move closer to this caged Ursa and test if he has the “ghosting” abilities that is masterful direction by Shyamalan. He’s able to ratchet up the tension in this one particular scene, intercutting the tiny steps of Kitai inching closer to this captive beast with the words of the crew with the silent and motionless cage… and you become locked into what’s happening on the screen, drawn into the uncertainty of whether or not there will be any reaction from the Ursa, even though you know it’s bound to happen. But that’s where a talented director excels – by having you get lost in the moment even though you know things are going to turn out a certain way. It was in a small sample like this that I was convinced there still are more good films lurking within M. Night Shyamalan… this just isn’t one of them.
I had recovered from a shaky beginning to get on-board with where AFTER EARTH was heading, and then the next tantrum happened, right at what feels like a pivotal point of Kitai’s mission… a point where one needs to nut up or shut up, regardless of age, because every second is critical… and here is young Jaden Smith in an absolutely laughable sequence out of left field, airing all his grievances about what a horrible father Cypher is and how awesome a kid he is. I’m sorry… but this is hardly the time nor the place, and a weak actor isn’t going to be able to make me believe that this is the point when this conversation needs to happen. This is a spoiled brat on full display, and it’s hard not to equate this character with his real-life counterpart, throwing down in front of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, because he didn’t get his way. “But Dad, I want to do this movie, not that one!!” Cypher Raige isn’t going to be Father of the Year anytime soon, but to have this moment deteriorate into a conniption fit, because one didn’t get his way, is ridiculous and enough to set AFTER EARTH off the rails. How am I supposed to become emotionally involved with this family when all I want is the Ursa to roll onto the scene and eat the kid, so I don’t have to listen to his complaining anymore.
Shyamalan does a decent job of creating the universe for AFTER EARTH to live in, but he can’t overcome the weak link of a young lead very much not ready for the responsibility of carrying a film of this nature. I get that the kid wants to get into the family business, but perhaps he’s better suited for something else in the movies than being in front of the camera. Maybe producing is more his cup of tea, or being the key grip… but, from what I’ve seen from Jaden Smith already, it’s certainly not acting, and this belief that he can do it is ultimately what cripples and ruins AFTER EARTH. It could have been a serviceable sci-fi flick. Thanks to Jaden Smith, it’s never allowed to get anywhere close.