Will Smith, left, and Jaden Smith in a scene from "After Earth."
After Earth is the perfect film for anyone contemplating the potential of a Syfy Channel movie with a big budget, Will Smith and son Jaden as leads, and M. Night Shyamalan as director.
For the rest of us, however, After Earth is a generic and uninspired science-fiction action-thriller, with a singular plot stretching through most of the film and the occasional speed bumps as character arcs along their linear journey.
The elder Smith plays a decorated general named Cypher Raige, and the younger Smith plays son Kitai Raige, a struggling soldier desperate to move out of his father’s shadow. The pair live on a human colony on a distant world a millennium after mankind was forced to abandon Earth because of ecological sins and disasters. Our home is no longer hospitable to us, either, and animals have evolved to be more dangerous and larger — much like the Ice Age of woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.
Because the film chooses to ignore any Earth-friendly “save our home from ourselves” theme, any alien world with the right conditions for life could have been substituted for our world. But After Earth is a more marketable title than, say, After Planet X109-4A.
The script by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, with the story concept by Smith, also lazily tosses aliens into the mix, but the film doesn’t explore that angle much either. A voiceover narration by Kitai tells us that humans tried to colonize a planet, and that an advanced alien race resented the incursion and attempted to wipe us out with a creature they designed solely to hunt and kill people.
While blind, this creature — which looks like a hairless dog carcass with an Alien head — uses its ability to sense human fear as a means to locate its prey. The fact that it’s blind, however, doesn’t prevent it from negotiating the landscape effortlessly even when no humans are around. How it’s able to navigate its surroundings is left to our imagination.
Fortunately, for humanity’s future there are super soldiers among us called Rangers who can fight and kill these beasties with great precision. These are people who have learned to control their fear, making them invisible to alien marauders. It’s a technique called “ghosting,” and no one does it better than Cypher.
After years of fighting, though, the aging soldier is ready to retire from military service and to reconnect with his wife and son. Father and son have issues to work on — dad is too hard on him, son is desperate to live up to dad’s expectations — and so they take a bonding trip on a military flight to another planet.
Their voyage is cut short when their ship is forced to crash land on Earth. The crew is killed, and Cypher is critically wounded, so Kitai must save them, with a perilous 100-kilometer trek from their half of the wrecked craft to the tail section of the ship, which houses an SOS beacon.
Obstacles include bloodthirsty mutant animals, rapid temperature drops at night, and a human-hunting alien caged on the ship that is now loose in the wilds. And so for nearly 90 minutes After Earth becomes a point A to point B story, trumped up with decent CGI and scenic Coast Rica landscapes, but with little imaginative storytelling and a plodding pace.
Shyamalan is strangely passive with this film, especially for a slumping director in desperate need of a quality movie to prove that his early success is indicative of a skillful filmmaker who’s lost his way rather than as a hack with extraordinary luck at the outset of his career. There’s no signature style or visual expression by Shyamalan; it’s all matter-of-fact filmmaking, including the inevitable and particularly unmemorable face-off between Kitai and the alien. So much for building to a peak.
Jaden must share blame as well for the failure of that sequence. He’s still young — he turns 15 in July — but he lacks his father’s natural charisma. He also delivers many of his lines as if speaking his first words.
As much as Smith wants to showcase his son’s talents — hence his story concept for the film — Jaden remains an acting project. Smith, meanwhile, is muted and dull as a stoic character with an immunity to emotions. The character arc should be that Cypher grows into his humanity and becomes the emotionally available father Kitai needs and wants, but there’s scarcely much growth by Smith; the warmth he displays, even in Cypher’s tearful embrace of his son, is like an awkward hug from step-cousin twice removed. For a father-son film project, there’s strangely little emotional connection between the pair onscreen.
Perhaps that’s just acting. Or, perhaps the Smiths need to go on a linear journey as well.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.