M. Night Shyamalan has very little hope for the future of humankind.
His lack of hope isn’t in the sense he may want you to believe at the start of After Earth – the whole destroying our own planet until it’s uninhabitable thing. No, he simply thinks we’re going to evolve into the wimpiest species imaginable.
How pathetic the species has become is the main obstacle standing in the way of General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai’s (Jaden Smith) survival when their ship crash lands on Earth and they are the only two survivors. The only way they will make it off the planet alive is to retrieve a beacon that can signal for help. Unfortunately for them, the beacon is 100-kilometers away, and Cypher has broken both his legs, so it’s up to Kitai to cross this planet where every species has evolved to kill humans.
Yes, that is a daunting task for a teenage boy who has never been to such a dangerous planet before. But instead of Kitai running into problems caused by ferocious monsters or unknown terrain, the majority of issues he has are caused by his own stupidity and inability to listen to his wiser father. He panics at every single opportunity and ends up coming off as one of the most pathetic protagonists in recent memory. The staggering number of times where he does something dumb in order to get himself in another horrible situation is likely meant to portray his youth and inexperience, but it ends up making him come off as unbelievably stupid. And it’s hard to root for stupid.
In fact, there’s only so many dumb things he can do before you start rooting for him to get eaten by one of the many monsters this world houses. Especially considering the monsters we do see are pretty dang awesome, so watching them eat someone would be epic. From flying snakes to tree-climbing jungle cats, the beasts of this world are some of the most terrifying creatures of sci-fi. But the monsters we see are far too few considering the possibilities available with this story.
Why do we not get an epic monster onslaught? This is a prime example of a movie that takes itself too seriously. When the first promotion for the film was released it seemed like this would be two hours of exhilarating sci-fi action with the coolest monsters since Jurassic Park. Instead of that, we get 100 minutes of motivational sermon about how fear is only in the mind, and only once we conquer fear can we truly live. That’s one of Will Smith’s messages for his son, but his bludgeoning of advice doesn’t end there. The father who is more commander than father figure has been completely played out in cinema, but even if it had never been used before, by the end of this movie everyone would be sick of it.
This background for a sentimental father-son movie just does not work. And its ineffectiveness is only furthered by the way the father-son dynamic is shown. This movie takes place on a planet with huge, terrifying monsters. Absolutely anything the director, the writers, or anyone on the production team could imagine was fair game to create for this movie. But instead of spending as much time as possible focused on the monsters, they opted for flashback after flashback after flashback. An endless string of flashbacks taking us away from this exciting and mysterious world back to a bland house where the most interesting thing is an odd amount of ferns in the living room.
The one time when a flashback would’ve been nice, Cypher telling his son about his first time ghosting, we instead get that story in the most boring way possible: Smith telling us. The visuals he describes are phenomenal, and his words almost paint a picture vivid enough to imagine what he’s describing, but people don’t go to movies to hear a story, they go to see it.
That scene where Smith tells the story is one of very few in the film where he seems a shade of his usual self. On the whole, he is pretty weak here, especially by Will Smith standards. It almost seems that he went cold on his four year break before Men In Black 3. Every line is delivered in such a deliberate way that it crosses the line from stylized science fiction to unbearably bland. But the senior Smith seemed like an Oscar contender in comparison with the film’s lead.
Jaden Smith simply doesn’t have his father’s ability to carry a film. It may be unfair to compare the younger Smith to his father, but when daddy comes up with a story and produces a film as a star vehicle for his son, that’s what’s going to happen. Usually when a performance is referred to as one-dimensional, it means the actor never strayed from an emotionless, stoic manner. This performance was as one-dimensional as any, but the dimension was whiny and bratty, which just does not work in a leading man. There is no charisma from the younger Smith, and because of that his journey is dull and carries no weight for the audience. Perhaps the roles should have been reversed. Have the son break his legs and be forced to wait. Sure, you lose the coming of age story and the stakes of an unproven boy against the terrors of the planet, but at least it would’ve been fun to watch.
As disappointing as the acting is, much of the blame has to rest on Shyamalan. After Earth is just another disappointing bust in his recent string of dreadful films. It’s baffling how he opted to tell this story in such an weak and safe manner. The man once known for shocking twists has developed into one of the most direct, straightforward storytellers in the business, which, for anyone who is confused, is a progression in the wrong direction. In this film there’s hardly an unexpected obstacle let alone some mind-blowing twist. People don’t go to see his movies to see something that follows a traditional cinematic flow, and the sooner he remembers that, the better. If Shyamalan ever wants to make another great film he needs to get back to his roots.
As it stands, After Earth is far from the greatness Shyamalan once brought to theaters. It’s dull, and the missed opportunities are painful – especially for sci-fi lovers. The sole positive aspect is the few monsters we see, but they’re so sparse that the only thing exciting about the film is waiting and hoping that another cool beast will burst onto the screen. Jaden Smith’s awful performance and lack of leading man luster pushes away any minimal empathy the story may have created, proving that in the future, the Smith family should probably leave their family bonding to home videos and keep it off the big screen.
Weak performances, a pathetic protagonist and an overuse of flashbacks make After Earth more painful to choke down than the air of the quarantined planet depicted in the film.