With Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Isabella Kravitz, Glenn Morshower. Written by Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images. 100 minutes.
Give Will Smith credit. He was a TV pop star who made the transition to the big screen and became a big movie star. Since then, he’s continued to take chances going from comedy to drama to action and yet always returning science fiction, for which he seems to have a special affinity. Not every film works, but he always gives it his best shot.
So, that said, how is AFTER EARTH? Well, it’s not as bad as “The Wild, Wild West.” Garry Whitta and director M. Night Shyamalan have taken a story idea from Smith that’s essentially a showcase for his son Jaden Smith. Give Will Smith additional credit for being a loyal and supportive father. And now he needs to do the right thing and tell the young boy, who turns 15 in July, that he ought to buckle down in his studies and be prepared to go into another line of work.
Like Tom Cruise’s recent “Oblivion,” the movie opens with a tutorial that goes by quickly and doesn’t make a lot of sense. They key points are that humanity no longer lives on Earth, and there’s some dangerous alien creatures called “ursa” who track humans through their fear. If you’re not afraid, you’re invisible to them.
After all that we focus on the Raige family. Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants to be a Ranger like his father, but has not yet qualified. As we learn in his flashbacks, he saw his beloved older sister (Zoë Isabella Kravitz) get killed by an ursa while he stayed safely hidden. He feels he was a coward who did nothing even though he was just a child at the time. His father Cypher (Will Smith) is an emotionless martinet while his mother Faia (Sophie Okonedo) is warm and loving and tries to get Cypher to unbend.
Whew. Once all that backstory is out of the way, we find ourselves on Earth where a ship carrying Rangers for a training exercise has crashed. The only survivors are a seriously wounded Cypher, callow Kitai and – strongly hinted – the ursa they just happened to be transporting for training purposes. In order for them to be rescued, Kitai has to travel 200 kilometers across a wild and dangerous terrain. Should he succeed he will have finally proven himself to his father and himself. Should he fail, they will both die.
The problems begin with the fact that as charming as Kravitz and Okonedo are in their few scenes, the film is almost entirely about the father and son, and neither one succeeds in making their characters engaging. Will Smith has a relatively wide range as an actor but here he makes the mistake of playing Cypher as if he were Clint Eastwood on a bad day. Indeed, Eastwood showed more personality in his “Dirty Harry” movies than Smith does in his wooden performance here. As for Jaden, it would not be fair to call him untalented, but it is fair to note that much as his father is trying to boost his career, he does not have what it takes to carry the film himself.
M. Night Shyamalan, presumably grateful for the job after a string of disastrous films, manages to keep the story moving. He makes good use of outdoor locations (mostly in California) and the natural beauty of the wild. The heavy-handed philosophizing that has marked his other films is mostly absent here except for a speech about how fear is “imaginary.”
And that’s the problem with “After Earth” in a nutshell – it could have used a lot more imagination.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.