Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay), Will Smith (story)
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zo├ź Kravitz
As M. Night Shyamalan’s career has continued to spiral out of control over the past decade, it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong for such a talented filmmaker. Many would argue that Lady in the Water is the movie where he completely lost his grip, sacrificing everything in service of a goofy and convoluted modern day fairy tale, but the truth is he had already stumbled before that with The Village. His usual storytelling tricks were no longer working, and in his attempt to evolve, he only ended up revealing more of his shortcomings.
The conclusion many have come to is that he can still generate clever ideas but he can no longer construct relatable characters or dialogue. With that in mind, After Earth would seem like the perfect solution to Shyamalan’s predicament. Given a script written by Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) and the charisma of one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, this should have put him on track for a triumphant comeback. Unfortunately, although After Earth has its moments, the end result is about as clunky as anything else he has done to date.
After Earth takes place, as you might expect, in a distant future where humans have abandoned their home planet and taken to the stars. An alien race threatens their existence, which is why humanity has formed a military force called the Ranger Corps, led by the courageous General Cypher (Will Smith). His son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is also training to become a Ranger, but he is impulsive and undisciplined. When his father decides to take him under his wing and bring him along on a mission, their ship crash lands on a dangerous planet, leaving their survival in the hands of young Kitai.
As the movie opens and lays out some of the mythology for this story, we are again reminded that Shyamalan has no idea how to ground sci-fi and fantasy worlds in any sort of believable reality. He seems to be at his best when he’s working within the framework of the real world, but here he is out of his element. Strange words and names feel even stranger when filtered through the stilted delivery that Shyamalan seems to require of his actors. In this movie, characters speak with an odd accent that is hard to place. That’s because it is a fictional accent invented by dialogue coaches to represent how humans in the future might talk. It’s a ridiculous detail that immediately pushes away viewers, although fortunately, dialogue is kept fairly sparse so it doesn’t complete sink the film.
I will admit that the idea of a sci-fi movie where the characters are stranded on a deserted planet fighting wild animals did not seem all that interesting to me going in. However, the survival element of the movie is actually where it surprised me the most. Shyamalan’s skilled handling of suspense keeps you on edge and there is a quiet, minimal nature to the film, not unlike Cast Away, that is fairly unique (especially among the summer blockbuster fare). The effects for the animals are also decent, but not quite up to par with expectations in the post-Life of Pi cinematic landscape.
Although Jaden Smith has plenty of detractors, I’ll go on record saying he’s not the worst part of this movie. He’s not a great actor, but there is at least an earnestness to his performance and an undeniable element of chemistry with his father that works for the most part. On the flip side, his father brings nothing to the table here. Granted, he is sidelined for the majority of the film’s run time staring at a computer monitor, but it takes a special kind of director to strip Will Smith of almost all of his natural likeability. The character is a cold, humourless, no-nonsense soldier, so part of this is by design, but we still need to connect with his paternal instincts and his reactions to what is going on. The idea of Will Smith monitoring his son’s actions remotely also seems like it could have been used in some interesting ways, but they fail to capitalize on it.
If the first half of After Earth is enjoyable to a point, the third act is where it all falls apart. While I like the idea of a creature that can literally sense your fear, it’s obvious from the outset what the climax of the movie will be and how it will play out. It just ends up being far too predictable. Say what you will about Shyamalan’s twist endings, but this movie really could have used one. The action in general is also pretty generic. I had been hoping that the trailers were holding back some interesting surprises, but alas, they are not. On the plus side, I suppose it is simple, straightforward and fairly short.
As an M. Night Shyamalan film, this movie finds him at his most neutered. While some might appreciate that at this point in his career, I can’t say it works in his favour. Most of his other movies at least have a compelling mystery at the center of them, but aside from the deliberate pacing and Spielbergian sentimentality, none of his directorial flourishes are present here. I suspect many moviegoers will probably see this as an improvement on his last few outings, and although I wouldn’t agree, I think we can probably still meet somewhere in the middle. For me After Earth is a weightless, forgettable father-son tale with little reason to recommend it. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Starship Troopers, Avatar, Oblivion