After Disney’s failed attempt at the sci-fi genre with John Carter, did anyone believe that chronically unlucky director M. Night Shyamalan would be able to succeed where other’s had failed? While After Earth is visually stunning, the story is grossly underdeveloped with characters being handed plot points, and a script that believes the audience is incredibly stupid. If you looked at the poster and wondered why Will Smith look determined and Jaden Smith looked sick/bored, you could accurately sum up this film without purchasing a ticket.
Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) are on a father-son mission in anticipation of Cypher’s retirement. When an asteroid destroys their ship, the duo is stranded on an Earth that’s unrecognizable. With Cypher incapacitated it is up to Kitai to save them, and finally prove himself to his father.
The movie is beautiful, even if a lot of the depictions of Earth and the various animals that inhabit it have been done in past films of the genre. The action/adventure/father-son story is injected with an added dose of realism by having a real father and son playing the leads, but it might have been better had it not been a science fiction film. The problem is that there’s very little description or context before Cypher and Kitai are dumped on Earth. Because we’re supposed to believe this is Earth, and it looks so insane, why not simply go to another planet entirely? There’s nothing learned about Earth, and zero discussion of returning to it in the future, so what’s the point? At the end, the two go home and forget they found Earth at all. The trailer makes the discovery of Earth to be a major mystery, on par with something like Oblivion, and then fails to follow up on the detail.
Will Smith is good, but spends the movie laid up and rehashing what we’re watching Jaden Smith do; speaking of, why have Will relay what’s going on on-screen, only to see Smith doing that same thing? So much of this film has to be described to the audience when its complexity level is nil. I mean, the “ursas” are just weird bear/John Carter hybrids, and when did baboons become terrified at water? Again, this could have been fixed had we been on a completely new world where elements like that needed to be explained. Furthermore, the logic of character motivation makes little sense. Kitai feels his father blames him for the death of his sister, and there’s really never a moment where Cypher dispels that; however, the sister is revealed to be a Ranger, trained in this type of combat, so why is everyone relying on a child to save her? It stinks of “murder a woman to create drama” and little else.
In terms of acting, you first have to get beyond the horrific vocal inflections the actors employ. I hate to beat a dead horse, but the weird vocal tics are never explained; is there a reason humans talk like Elmer Fudd on this planet? Will Smith is suitably stoic, even when the script decides to make him go from normal to psychotic in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, Jaden Smith continues to fail as a leading man, and while the role was always going to be tough for a kid, he doesn’t know any other mode than freak-out. In the instances where he tries to rise above and be an action hero, he feels like he’s parodying his father; there’s no individuality to his character because the script and his limited acting prevent that.
After Earth is a beautifully filmed disaster with little thought or engagement in the material. This could have been better if the elder Smith had taken over; instead, it’s a sweet father/son story that didn’t need to go to outer space.