‘After Earth’ Review: M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith Fail to Develop a Worthwhile Story
A Will Smith movie without charisma is like an M. Night Shyamalan movie without a twist. It sounds interesting or different going in, but this one ultimately doesn’t deliver.
Much as Shyamalan made his career on surprise twists, Smith made himself the biggest star in the world by focusing his talent and charm. Over his last few movies, the director has begun to move away from the “twist” hallmark, and with the pair’s first collaboration, After Earth, Smith also forgoes his calling card. The actor’s undeniable charm and screen presence have been completely excised from his portrayal of a cold, fearless military leader. Without that personality to fall back on Smith’s character becomes a personification of the movie: far from captivating and only somewhat watchable.
After Earth begins with a promising story idea — Smith’s character is on a life or death mission with his son – but ends up hollow and disjointed, with questionable choices made all around. It’s a good nugget of a premise that never feels truly developed.
As After Earth begins, it presents some very intriguing ideas. One thousand years ago, humans all but destroyed the Earth, and were forced to leave. After arriving on a new planet, humans were attacked by another alien race which literally smells fear. Controlling emotions became a desirable human trait. No one is as fearless as military legend Cypher Raige (Will Smith). We see this through the eyes of his son Kitai, played by Smith’s son Jaden Smith. Kitai is an underdog, constantly in his father’s shadow, and harboring a deep secret. That’s a pretty great place for a character to start a film and all of this set-up works well, hinting at exciting payoffs to come.
Unfortunately, all that promise is slowly jettisoned when Cypher and Kitai crash land on the planet once abandoned by humanity. Right off the bat, we’re presented with rules and conflicts that make no sense. We’re told everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans. But why would that happen if humans hadn’t been there for centuries? And if the planet is that dangerous, was it necessary to introduce one of the fear-smelling aliens into the mix?
Nitpicks aside, those two obstacles are just a couple of the challenges complicating Kitai’s larger task: to travel 100 kilometers on foot to retrieve the crashed ship’s homing beacon without the help of his injured father. This journey should be perilous and character-building. Over the course of the next 60 minutes or so, we won’t feel either of those things.
The film becomes a mix of four elements: Kitai expressing angst, Cypher being injured, Kitai running, and serviceable action scenes with bad CG. If any of these scenarios added to the drama or weight of the journey, they would be welcome. Instead, they feel like separate stages of a video game, loosely connected and uninvolving. Even when Shyamalan gives us a scene with some fun elements, the challenge never feels particularly difficult. Stack it, for example, against the long journey in The Lord of the Rings, a series After Earth often echoes visually, and there is no comparison.
Along the journey, the core idea of Kitai as an underdog also begins to go away. There are moments one could point to and say “Here’s where he learns something” but they fall flat. Maybe it’s because they happen with no connective development in between. Or maybe it’s the hit/miss performance of Jaden Smith. Either way, we never feel he’s earning what we’re seeing. The film isn’t even really a strong father and son story because the father and son are always apart. Time and time again, After Earth employs a tell-don’t-show method that becomes unsettling.
The issues outlined above are only a few of a laundry list of problems. It would be easy to blame them all on director M. Night Shyamalan. He definitely bears a fair amount of responsibility, for the pacing and uneven performances. Yet when he’s given something to do, like an exciting action scene, he does a great job with it. It’s the times between that feel labored and slow, and a lot of that is dictated by a story (credited to Will Smith) that’s simply not developed enough to sustain 90 minutes.
After Earth has some gorgeous set design, costumes and a sprinkling of good ideas and fun action. Unfortunately it’s not really about anything. We learn little about the environmental issues it presents. The development of a father and son’s relationship is forced and the growth of young man into a warrior feels rushed. The whole film lacks the swagger Smith and Shyamalan have exhibited in the past.
/Film rating: 4 out of 10