‘After Earth’ has a bunch of good things going for it. Will Smith is the biggest box office draw in the business right now, and his son Jaden has proven to have decent acting chops. This film’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting takes place on different planets in the far-off future, and includes lots of aliens, spaceships and cool weaponry. This seems like a perfect recipe for a massive summer blockbuster. However, despite these seemingly cool aspects, the movie comes up short and never fully delivers on its promise.
A decade or two ago, if I were to tell you that M. Night Shyamalan was making a sci-fi epic, you probably would have foamed at the mouth and been first in line to purchase tickets. I put myself in that category. With films like ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Signs’, Shyamalan was one of the best directors and storytellers of that time. Unfortunately, soon after that, it seemed like he died and was possessed by the soul and mind of Ed Wood, Jr. when he made movies like ‘Lady in the Water’, ‘The Happening’ or ‘The Last Airbender’. It’s as if Shyamalan decided that he wanted to be the worst director in Hollywood. Within a few years, he held that title. Once upon a time, studios would market a movie with Shyamalan’s name above the title. Nowadays, he’s not even mentioned in any of the marketing for ‘After Earth’.
That being said, this is a giant step in the right direction after the disastrous ‘Airbender’. It feels as if, after that failure, Shyamalan is at least giving it the old college try again and wants to appease everyone. The movie has some great moments, but also tons of clichés. The whole thing is also very predictable, which is not Shyamalan’s former style.
Through its 100 minute run-time, we focus mostly on two characters: Cypher Raige and his son Kitai. Over 1,000 years in the future, the people of Earth have fled the planet due to devastating events and have re-settled on a new planet outside our solar system. On this new world, humans have built large structures to house themselves and developed some very neat technology in the form of computers, spaceships and weapons. However, an alien species that resembles the bugs from ‘Starship Troopers’ also lives there. These aliens track their prey by sensing fear, and since humans display fear a lot, we’re easy targets.
Cypher is the leading commander in a peacekeeping military unit. His job is to discover new territories to settle and to destroy these aliens. Because he shows no fear, he’s able to move closely between the aliens during battle. Cypher also tends not to show any other emotion, as he strictly adheres to a military officer’s persona. His teenage son Kitai wants to be just like his heroic dad, but is rebellious and can’t seem to pass a certain test in military training. In order to bond with his son, Cypher agrees to take Kitai on a mission, during which their spaceship runs into an asteroid field and is badly damaged, forcing them to land on the nearest planet, which just happens to be Earth.
With their ship split in half, Cypher takes a bad injury to his leg and loses a lot of blood. Kitai, on the other hand, is virtually unharmed. His dad informs him that their distress beacon is broken and supplies are running low, but that the tail section of the ship contains another distress beacon and more supplies. That part of the ship is a several day hike in the wild and dangerous new Earth. In order to save his father and his own life, Kitai must face his past demons and trek through some very menacing situations.
The story tries to conjure up a tear or two, but the cheesy way it’s told and the lack of time the characters are given to develop causes any genuine moments to get lost. This is unfortunate, because the movie could have been much better. The visual effects of the evolved Earth animals are stunning and look real, however the big alien bug looks like a lazy design, possibly rejected from a previous film. As far as the directing goes, Shyamalan’s visuals are beautiful and even haunting at times. I just wish he could stay true to himself and not succumb to so many Hollywood clichés.
Will Smith’s character doesn’t show a lot of emotion and is confined to a chair for most of the film. He does a decent job, but I’ve seen better from him in other movies. The real star of the show is Jaden Smith. He’s amazing in this role and shows growth as an actor. He struggles with his relationship with his dad and with his fears of being alone and unable to accomplish a task, but then turns that around and shows confidence that makes us believe he’s truly a star. This is his moment to shine.
For some reason, the characters in this movie have a strange accent throughout. I’m not sure why that is, but it can be somewhat distracting. It’s like a cross between Jar Jar Binks and the dialect from the future portions of ‘Cloud Atlas’. It feels unnecessary.
With Will Smith’s star power, ‘After Earth’ should make a decent opening weekend box office gross, but I doubt that people will want to see the movie again. This isn’t a triumphant comeback for director M. Night Shyamalan, but it could be a lot worse.