Jaden and Will Smith re-team in After Earth, the latest from director/twist master M. Night Shymalan. A Sci-Fi father/son outing (in more ways than one), After Earth begins with a lengthy, exposition-heavy narration from Jaden, which recounts how humankind ruined the Earth and fled to the stars. There’s no mention of how long ago that was, but it was definitely long enough for the Earth’s environment to become one of the galaxy’s most treacherous.
Naturally, father and son are eventually marooned on the inhospitable rock that was once our home, and the movie becomes a survival/coming-of-age story, where a boy has to become a man both in the eyes of himself and his estranged father. It’s a promising premise, based on a story by Will Smith, so it’s no surprise that it’s a two-person film that happens to star the Smith men. Unsurprisingly, that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. Because it’s carried by essentially two characters, the actors that play those two characters have to be compelling enough to keep our attention and make us care about their struggles.
There are a couple of things that make it difficult for Will and Jaden to make us care. First is the nature of Will’s character. As an elite soldier in mankind’s Ranger division he has isolated all emotions to make himself a more effective strategist, commander and killer of After Earth‘s antagonists the URSA, derivative, feral aliens that are blind, but use their heightened sense of smell to track humans by the smell they produce when they are afraid. That’s right, they see by smelling fear.
Because Will’s character Cypher Raige (seriously) is an emotional automaton, he lacks much of the humanity that would make him relatable or interesting. Shymalan never delves into that or chips away at the character’s stoic reserve, so he ultimately goes nowhere. The second thing that makes the film’s characters difficult to relate to is Jaden. Generally speaking, his performance is lacking. His range of emotion is extreme, but unbelievable. He’s much more at home with the physicality of his character, but as he is far more emotional and therefore dynamic than his father’s character, his performance really makes or breaks the film and for the most part it is broken.
It’s not too hard to imagine how he got the part in the film, the problem is he’s not really right for it. About an hour in, I found myself wondering who could do this better. Michael B. Jordan immediately came to mind. He’s showcased great range in The Wire and Chronicle and he’s a little older, so his coming-of-age story would have been a little stronger. But we didn’t get Michael B. Jordan, we got Jaden Smith and so here we are with a lukewarm Sci-Fi movie chocked full of so-so character development and not much else. It’s telling that Zoë Kravitz is bright spot, considering she’s only in the film for 10 minutes, if all of her flashbacks were combined.
As for the master of suspense, Mr. Shymalan is actually quite reserved here. No twists or gimmicks, aside from the father-son duo played by real-life father-son duo. And his restraint keeps After Earth largely watchable. Almost enjoyable at times. He doesn’t do much to punch up the performances, unless both Smiths were comatose for most of the shooting and he had to coax them to life. But he does avoid any overwrought plot arches or a message that he hits us over the head with. Sure, the monster can only be vanquished by conquering your fears, but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things, especially when you consider this is the guy who gave us Lady In The Water.
The biggest kindness I can give After Earth is that it is beautifully shot and many of the special effects are well done. It’s plot has a few cracks in its foundation, but overall, the film features a lot of forward momentum and at about 95 minutes, minus credits, it barely drags. The ending could have been executed better or at least been made to feel about something, but considering that it could have ended with the revelation that they had traveled back to prehistoric times or that it was all a dream, it gets a pass.