The potent combination of Hollywood nepotism and a quickly fading directorial star provide the backbone of science fiction action drama After Earth. In the future, the human race had to evacuate Earth and move to other planets, which brought them into contact with a race of alien hunters who can ˜literally smell your fear known as the Ursa. Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet training to be a ranger like his legendary father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). His test scores are exceptional, but he has problems controlling his emotions in the field, so his father, about to announce his retirement, decides to take him for extra training. However after a freak incident causes the ship to crash, an Ursa down in the bowels of the ship gets free. Injured during the crash, Cypher sends his young son out into the wild to retrieve a distress beacon in the hopes that help will arrive before they both die.
To say that director M. Night Shyamalan has seen his stock plummet critically and commercially would be an understatement. After exploding onto the scene with the excellent The Sixth Sense, his films have got progressively more convoluted, self-indulgent and nonsensical reaching their absolute nadir with The Last Airbender. Hopes of climbing back up to a position of commercial and critical success with After Earth, on paper seem strong. In Will Smith he has a big bankable A-List star, while the promise of having him team with his son Jaden for the first time since The Pursuit of Happyness generated the required buzz. Sadly the finished article is less than impressive.
After Earth’s central premise of a young boy coming of age to save his father on an inhospitable planet is really rather neat. Unfortunately Shyamalan goes to great lengths to make his central pairing so unlikeable that it takes a full half of the film before we as an audience are given a reason to care. Jaden’s performance is as wildly uneven as you might expect from a young, inexperienced actor and his range seems to be from incoherent sulking to tearful rebellion. There are moments of real class, but on the whole he is an irritant best avoided. Will Smith is hampered by one of the most dour, lifeless scripts in recent years and there’s a sense that if his son wasn’t involved he wouldn’t have touched the film. The two have a staggeringly awkward chemistry that is jarring and frustrating to watch and really there are few bigger crimes in film.
Once Jaden is out on his own in the jungles of Earth, the film manages to stretch its legs a little and we’re treated to some neat visuals as well as some good ideas, such as the overnight freezing and the relevant safe hotspots. Annoyingly however Shyamalan can’t help but go for the overly sentimental imagery, while Smith Sr. spends his whole time teaching his son how to be less emotional, and by extension interesting, charismatic and engaging. It’s a confusing and misjudged message that serves the good premise a huge disservice.
The recent spate of big budget science fiction films like Total Recall, Oblivion and now After Earth, continue to prove that there are some good ideas still around that can be mined. What they also prove is that in the hands of the wrong director, they can be tedious and unfulfilling cinematic experiences. Comfortably the weakest science fiction films this year, After Earth is best left alone and should probably be the final nail in the coffin of the career of M. Night Shyamalan.