6/6/2013 - Will Smith and Will Smith: the Next Generation play a father/son team space-shipwrecked on a hostile planet in After Earth, a movie that, in addition to telling us we Must Like Jaden Smith, is directed and co-written by M. Night Shyamalan.
I’d imagine some of you have just said “I’m out,” putting your cards face down and pushing back from the table so you can browse your iPhone to find out what time the Star Trek movie is playing. And, OK, sure, that’s where I’m headed but let me explain why.
It’s 1,000 years hence. After breaking the planet with pollution and climate change and whatnot, humans long ago abandoned Earth and headed to a planet that looks like Arizona in a new solar system. There, they wear jump suits and flowy gowns, as you would in space. Humans have also adopted a weird manner of speaking that seems part shaky British accent, part old-timey Western accent, part bad idea. Perhaps become of their irritating speaking patterns, aliens called Ursas hunt humans. These big lumbering insecty-looking creatures can’t see, but they can track humans by smelling their fear. (Perhaps the aliens became blind because they rolled their eyes so hard at this fact.) Humans who have figured out how to be without fear can fight the Ursas.
Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is just such a warrior. Devoid of not only fear but all emotions except for extreme annoyance at his son, Cypher is looking forward to an upcoming retirement when he can get reacquainted with his family. The Raiges — including Cypher’s wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) and their son Kitai (Jaden Smith) — are still suffering from a tragic loss that gets leaned on pretty hard throughout the movie whenever somebody needs to have an emotion. When Cypher decides to take Kitai with him on a mission, Faia thinks it’s a good idea because father and son can bond.
Ah, but we know what happens when someone goes on a mission before their retirement.
Soon Cypher and Kitai have crash-landed. The other passengers are dead and Cypher is badly injured, leaving Kitai the only one who can make the trek from the nose section of the crash to the tail section many kilometers away where the emergency beacon is. Making matters worse: The Ursa the ship was transporting to help train more fighters appears to have escaped. Making matters even worse: The ship has crashed on a planet full of things that can kill humans. Where are they?
Welcome to Earth!
Oh, sigh, for the days when a Will Smith alien movie was a thing of enjoyment.
So I read that book, The World Without Us. I enjoy a good thought experiment about what the planet will look like in 1,000 years, particularly if humans suddenly weren’t here. More baboons and whales? Sure, probably. Birds the size of crop dusters? Seems a little fast but, I’ll play along. A planet that almost entirely freezes over at night? I think I’d like a little explanation. And I’d maybe like a hint of where on this strange new, old planet the action is taking place. (France was my guess, based on the cave paintings — though there are many flora- and fauna-related problems with that guess.)
The Earth in After Earth is the most compelling thing about this movie but other than its serving as a lush backdrop we don’t get too many details about the way the planet has changed. The trees got big and the slugs got poisonous — that’s pretty much the kind of detail you get. And it’s unfortunate, because while I was plenty interested in wondering whether France or someplace in Africa was the home of the volcano that appears in this landscape, I never found myself wondering anything about Cypher and Kitai. I get that Will Smith’s character is a man for whom control of emotion is life or death, but some kind of acting might have nonetheless been helpful. And, no, “grimacing in pain” does not count as character development. Likewise, Jaden Smith’s frustrated little-teen wannabe solider has all the emotional depth of a kid pestering his dad for a new XBox game. In his previous big movie roles — The Pursuit of Happyness, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Karate Kid — Jaden Smith was a decent enough child actor. He even had a naturalness about him. He seemed to have regular-kid qualities, not just show-biz kid hamminess. Here — and perhaps this is just how it works when you aren’t really a kid anymore but are still far from an adult — he just seems ill-at-ease. You never really get a handle on who Kitai is or what he wants beyond just his father’s attention.
There is no Shyamalan twist here, no “it was the trees all along!” but the movie has a flatness that almost makes you wish for some of those hokey Shyamalan elements. You’d think a movie about a young boy questing through an unknown land full of deadly animals would have crackles of suspense and adventure, but After Earth just feels draggy. Particularly wearing are flashbacks to the Big Sad Thing that the Raige family suffered, flashbacks that seem to keep the story stalled rather than move it along.
After Earth has an intriguing setting, a not-horrible basic plot and plenty of opportunity for excitement, but in the end it feels like a slide show of the Smith family’s weekend chores. C-
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and written Shyamalan and Gary Whitta from a story by Will Smith, After Earth is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed by Sony Pictures.