Picking on a bad movie can be a lot of fun for film critics, a form of “revenge” that justifies having suffered through a cinematic turkey. The word was out on M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth not long before release: accusations of being a vanity project for co-star and co-producer Will Smith and another unfortunate outing for Shyamalan, who was once called “The Next Spielberg,” which seems incredible now. I take no joy in panning his latest movie, though I experienced no joy in watching it either. The biggest problem in the film is its complete lack of entertainment value.
The elder Smith stars as a starship commander who oversees expeditions to Earth, now a dangerous planet inhabited by mutated monsters determined to kill all they encounter. Jaden Smith plays the much-loved commander’s son, whose verbal application to a prestigious academy has been rejected. The father and son are the only survivors of a crash landing on Earth. While the father is critically wounded, he is able to instruct his son by radio contact the ways to survive the deadly planet.
The design of the film is unconventional (a nice way to put it) and quite ugly. A futuristic apartment building resembles a chic circus tent, while the innards of a spaceship look somewhat like that of Noah’s Ark. Earth is full of intriguing CGI creatures that are nothing more than set direction, serving no purpose other than giving the hero something to attack or run from (the same goes for the monster on the loose).
The most exciting scene is the spaceship being pelted by a meteor shower, which is filmed in a way that oddly obscures the action. The filmmakers saved some money by not showing the ship’s crash landing. Yet, Shyamalan’s decision to frame a scene with what looks like a shower curtain, opening and closing endlessly, annoys more than it intrigues. The same goes for Will Smith’s long monologue about how “fear is a choice:” the camera doesn’t move, remaining on him in a dilapidated flight deck, droning on and on. It isn’t interesting and neither is Smith’s glum, strangely not at all compelling performance.
Scenes of papa Smith draining blood from his leg, son Jaden’s face puffing up from an allergic reaction, piles of dead animals, combined with a morose tone and slow pace, won’t win over anyone but the most forgiving audience. Shyamalan has made a strange film with distinctly offbeat touches that might seem bold, uniquely non-commercial over time.
What will never age well is Jaden Smith’s flat performance; even more so than The Karate Kid remake (which had Jackie Chan’s surprisingly potent performance to elevate it), this proves that Jaden is a likable kid but not yet an actor, and definitely unable to carry a film. Will and Jaden were terrific together in The Pursuit of Happyness. Though they’re once again playing father and son, there’s no chemistry between them.
There are big missteps at the screenplay level, particularly the weapon of choice in the high-tech future being a double edged sword and the laughable premise of “Ghosting” (this movie’s version of “The Force”). As a father/son bonding parable, it plays like a son whose parents refuse to let go of his umbilical chord.
A scene in which Jaden fights off a tiger’s attack on a nest of baby eagles best sums up the film: it’s a pointless CGI set piece that ends with the depressing sight of mutilated chicks. It leaves you feeling letdown and feeling bad for having cared.
I sincerely hope Shyamalan, whose earlier films were wonderful, recovers from this and other recent missteps. Meanwhile, over family dinner, may the Smiths recall how wonderful their Happyness was… but never bring up After Earth.
Score: * (1-5 Star Score)