A sci-fi adventure void of excitement and personality, After Earth takes an interesting idea and turns it into a meandering, plodding drip of a movie.
M. Night Shyamalan once made great films. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs were unique genre movies that benefited from Shyamalan’s creative approach to story and direction. Several turkeys later and the once critic’s darling has become a gun for hire, with After Earth his latest gig. That his once popular name does not appear on any of the promo material indicates the dire professional straits Shyamalan has found himself in.
The names that are front and centre belong to Will Smith and his son Jaden. They (of course) play father and son General Cypher Riage and Kitai Raige, respectively, inhabitants of a distant planet colonised by humans, who find themselves in a race for survival after a mid-space journey leads to a crash landing on an Earth that has evolved into a much dangerous place a millennium after mankind left it. Being a Shyamlan film of course there is more plot featured, yet such exposition was dizzying enough in the film so no need to repeat it here.
A case of “too much info” is the least of the problems which plague After Earth, a bland sci-fi adventure that literally begins with a crash and never recovers. With a meandering script (courtesy of Shyamalan and Gary Wittia) as its guide, After Earth plodders from one scenario to another as hot-headed Kitai journeys through treacherous land to find an emergency beacon, while his heroic yet emotionally stunted father is sidelined with a gruesome injury that could be fatal. Despite working with two tense filled scenarios, Shyamalan fails to make either effectively engrossing in any way.
A big problem is the performances, with the Smith duo unable to make these characters, their scenario or their relationship worth investing in. Jaden Smith is just too green to pull of such a demanding lead role, with Kitai the engine that should have made After Earth run smoothly instead of spluttering along like the lemon it is. In turn Kitai becomes an intensely unlikeable character who cannot get the audience on side.
Just as bad is big “Willie” Smith, who delivers a flaccid performance bereft of that charisma that benefits most of his movies, replaced here with a clenched jaw intensity that becomes stale, fast. It is ironic that a film about a son following the legacy of his father has seen the Smith family shoot themselves in the foot in their second outing as a collective (matriarch Jada Pinkett Smith joins her husband as a producer).
Worst is the body blow given to Shyamalan’s career with yet another stinker. There is still talent there to be sure with some moments of tension creeping through After Earth now and again, yet a new approach is needed by Shyamalan to recapture former glories.
The first step should be to align himself with a screenwriter - perhaps a Damon Lindelof (Star Trek) or Jonatahon Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) - who can take his million dollar ideas and shape it into something worth watching. The second? Stay away from vain family projects that are sure to leave egg on your face.