After Earth Review
There was once a time when M. Night Shyamalan movies were met with a giddy anticipation. Works such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable cemented his status as one of the most dynamic filmmakers working in Hollywood. Or at least until absurdities like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender cast serious doubts as to whether he still had his distinctive cinematic touch. Now aligning himself with Will Smith, Shyamalan attempts here to revitalize his burdening career by taking on a big budget sci-fi flick. After Earth is a tale of parenting in a dystopian future featuring Smith and real-life son Jaden.
Beginning with news of mankind’s destruction of Earth in the not-so-distant future (it’s our fault yet again) we are propelled a thousand years forward to the successfully colonised planet Nova Prime. Though life sustaining, it’s also riddled with flesh-eating creatures known as Ursas which seem intent on wiping out the human population. Will Smith plays Prime Commander Cypher Raige, legendary among the United Ranger Corps for his ability to “ghost” – he can secrete a pheromone which makes him undetectable to the beasts – while Jaden takes on the role of his son, Kitai, who hopes to follow in his footsteps. An entirely predictable plot contrivance has the two placed on a spaceship which, after a collision with a meteor, sees them crash land on the now uninhabited Earth.
With Cypher out of action thanks to two broken legs, the narrative is left mostly to Kitai as he ventures across the depopulated terrain in order to a find a beacon that will send a distress signal back home. Though daddy can’t accompany him, a device in Kitai’s suit allows them to video chat no matter how far away they are and for Cypher to hand out survival tips. The planned expedition is treacherous to say the least, as everything on Earth has mutated into a potential human-killer and the oxygen in the atmosphere is now poisonous. Every so often Kitai will encounter a primate keen on devouring him or a Bengal tiger looking to maul him to death – yet the CGI is unremarkable and you find yourself nodding off as proceedings slowly plod along.
Underneath all of this is an irritating need for sentimentality, stemming from the untimely demise of older sister Senshi (Zoë Isabella Kravitz) at the hands of an Ursa. Kitai was a witness to her death and still blames himself for having been too frightened to intervene, but it’s all so shamefully overdone and completely fails to achieve the kind of emotional depth it sets out for. As if this wasn’t enough, After Earth also hammers home this idea that fear is merely a concept and only danger is real. Not only is it underdeveloped, it’s also nonsensical, yet Shyamalan has it run through the entire picture. Like so much in this $130 million blockbuster, it fails to engage.
Regular collaborator James Newton Howard returns to score (having worked on each of Shyamalan’s films since The Sixth Sense), but can’t save After Earth from its own blandness. Even the various David and Goliath-like set pieces pitting Kitai against a succession of mutant creatures fail to live up to his momentous music. Extremely derivative – evoking the likes of Avatar and the Clash of the Titans remake – they offer little in the way of invention or, for that matter, suspense. The climactic battle between a King Kong-sized Ursa and a now seemingly invincible Kitai is particularly tiresome, recalling the fight scene from John Carter in which the titular Earthling took on a pair of giant four-armed apes.
To his credit, Shyamalan was once above mere imitation. An interesting and occasionally subversive writer-director, he used to take clear pleasure in toying with an audience and concocting twist-filled tales of mystery and intrigue. Here, however, he appears to have turned his back on anything even remotely risky, instead creating a pair of vacuous, barely believable characters and a mundane storyline that drags itself from one predictable scene to the next. Any sign that this is a Shyamalan movie is barely perceptible – if anything this is ‘a film by Will Smith’, casting his son in the vain hope that it will boost his career and selling it on that promise too.
Is it any surprise then that young Jaden comes across as a spoilt brat constantly seeking his father’s attention (only to proclaim, in the face of adversity, “I don’t need your help!”)? As for Will, he’s never been a less interesting screen presence, and appears to be there solely to show support for his son whom he clearly believes will be a future star. While the 14-year-old may have established a certain bankability thanks to the remake of The Karate Kid, he has none of the charisma that made his dad a star. Handing over the reins to Smith Junior is perhaps After Earth’s biggest mistake – he just doesn’t have the qualities to sustain an entire movie.
Thankfully the whole thing clocks in at about 100 minutes, so at least it’s a good half-hour shorter than John Carter, to which it bears an uncanny resemblance. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent from being a fundamentally dreary and relentlessly clichéd exercise in Hollywood-level nepotism. It also provides further confirmation that Shyamalan is no longer the filmmaker he once was.