This father-son sci-fi wilderness adventure starring real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith is nothing more than an overlong and overly sadistic obstacle course, both for its main character and the viewer. As the teenager hero of After Earth makes his way though dangerous territory, leaping from safe spot to safe spot, the movie leaps from lazy cliché to lazy cliché and listless life lesson to listless life lesson beat by predictable beat.
In the film’s exposition-heavy prologue we find out humankind now wears a lot of white unitards and moved to distant Nova Prime a thousand years ago because of Earth’s manmade downfall, elucidated through a stock montage of floods, fires, riots and explosions. The natives of our new home planet, none the happiest to be colonized however, have engineered super alien beasts known as Ursas—they are not bearlike, in case you were wondering—that are almost blind, but can track, hunt, and kill by smelling human pheromones—“they literally smell fear,” the voiceover helpfully explains. What I’ve just described—and so, so, so much more—could have easily been expanded into a full-length feature. Director M. Night Shyamalan squeezes it into about five minutes, and packs everything full of superficial details, justifications, and rationalizations that are both unnecessary and unimpressive.
Which is why there’s no wonder little Raige has some serious daddy (or lack thereof) issues. What is surprising is that anyone thought watching him alternately sulk, whine, and simmer with rage would make for an entertaining hour and a half—at 90 minutes’ running time (not counting credits), After Earth trudges along for what seems like millennia, one big anticlimax made up of many little ones.
The story proper begins when the spaceship the Raiges are on hits a freak asteroid storm and crash-lands on Earth, “a class one quarantined planet,” killing everyone else on board. Cypher has inconveniently for him and conveniently for the plot broken both his legs, and it is up to Raige Junior to make a 100-kilometer trek to the tail section of the ship find the rescue beacon that will save their lives.
“Fear is not real,” Papa Raige tells his son. “It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real. But fear is a choice.” Danger is omnipresent on this pristine, post-apocalyptic planet crawling with creatures that have all evolved to kill us: carnivorous baboons, giant predatory birds, scary, saber-toothed, leopard-spotted hyenas, and worse. The Earth’s atmosphere has become too toxic for human consumption, but is apparently fine for a tapestry of oxygen-breathing flora and fauna that have not only survived, but thrived and flourished. Although there are some damn cute baby critters to lighten the mood.
There are appealing and genuine possibilities to be gleaned from a boy against wilderness tale—if in doubt check out Ang Lee’s Life of Pi—but After Earth squanders its promise. The problem is not that we know that Kitai will make it to the end of his journey and fulfill his inescapable destiny; the problem is we’re never allowed to forget it, to get excited, to fear for his safety and survival.
Will Smith, generally a charismatic screen presence, spends most of his surprisingly short, one-note performance clenching his jaw, pursing his lips, holding back tears and making room for Jaden in the spotlight; Raige has learned to sublimate not only fear, but every other kind of emotion as well. In contrast, Kitai seems to be feeling every emotion at once, and Smith’s son overacts. It’s not Jaden’s fault his character is an insufferable, wimpy brat who is supposed to magically make us believe he will turn into a man in over the course of a few days, while battling (and being upstaged by) unconvincing CG animals against colorful CG backdrops of brilliantly-hued CG plants, ashy CG volcanoes and gloomy, charcoal CG skies. There are rare moments of visual beauty, as sparkling snowflakes form on Kitai’s furrowed brow, or a herd of buffalo sweeps across a plain—think meerkats in Pi. But these images are few and far between; the rest is contrivance. Shyamalan's universe ain't got nothing on Avatar's spellbinding, fully-imagined eco-system.
In Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, brash tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) visits a Hollywood super-agent (played by Rob Lowe) and tries to talk him into putting cigarettes back into movies and sex back into cigarettes. They devise a steamy spaceship scenario in which Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones light up after having sex in space. “But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment,” Naylor innocently asks. “Probably,” the agent concedes. “But it’s an easy fix, one line of dialogue: ‘Thank God we invented the, you know, whatever device.’” There are many such lines in After Earth, and no explanation is simple.
It’s the movie itself, as well as its director’s career, that seems to be struggling for survival. None of the suspense and surprise that dot the filmmaker’s early projects (including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) is apparent in this big-budget exercise of inept storytelling. Shyamalan must have lost all of his senses.