Stars: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glen Morshower and Kristofer Hivju.
Writers: M Night Shyamalan and gary Whitta; story by Will Smith.
Director: M Night Shyamalan.
M Night Shyamalan’s laborious, plodding sci-fi adventure stumbles out of the blocks with a grating voice-over and lame ‘3 days earlier…’ title-card and goes downhill from there. Only the most forgiving of Will Smith’s dwindling audience will find anything of any worth in his portrayal of a career soldier and stoic father who must rely on his wayward son (real-life spawn, Jaden) to get them both home safely.
From its flashback-and-forth narrative to a voice from the grave that saves the day and offers redemption, Shyamalan’s one-trick gimmickry is employed to meagre effect yet again. Bar that daft detour into hired-hand territory with The Last Airbender, After Earth is as Shyamalan as Shyamalan gets; its father-son/grief-infused narrative probably most recalls Signs (for me, his best film) but there are recognisable bits that nod to The Sixth Sense, The Happening and, to a lesser extent, Lady in the Water.
The premise is hoary old sci-fi 101. A deep space mission hits some asteroid debris, jumps into hyper-drive to escape certain death and pops out in the galaxy at a point just a stone’s throw from Planet Earth. With the crew all dead and Earth now a vicious jungle where all creatures have developed into maneaters, it is up to Kitai (the younger Smith) to find the rescue beacon that will save his badly wounded Dad (the older Smith).
Shyamalan mashes up the man-vs-nature journey with some post-apocalyptic sci-fi stuff, and neither manages to hold audience interest. Dragging everything down is the monotonous dialogue, mostly spoken between Will from a chair in the crashed space-craft and Jaden out in the wilds. The elder Smith has mastered the art of ‘ghosting’, a fear-control mechanism that allows him to fight the Ursas, an alien species that tracks you by the scent of your fear pheromones. It also means one of the most vibrant leading men in Hollywood is reduced to a stoic (read, ‘bored’) look throughout. Young Jaden seems far too young to play a warrior-type and lacks the charisma to carry an action lead.
There are some ok effect-driven interludes, notably an airborne sequence which has Kitai being chased by giant condor; but, in line with the skewy logic at the centre of the film, its ‘predator/prey’ tension is undone when said condor turns saviour. It is one of many dumb moments that reveal the thinly-etched fabric of the plot.
There are also the much-discussed parallels with the Scientology principles; Smith and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith have long been rumoured to be closet disciples of the faith (they refuse to comment on any involvement). Those familiar with the basic tenets of the religion can’t help but draw comparisons between the hero who has learnt to control his fears, the young rebel who learns to toe the line and imagery such as volcanoes (central to founder L Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’ book). It should not cast a shadow over the film’s drama, however unengaging that may be, but it unavoidably will for some.
M Night Shyamalan, who takes a co-writers credit with Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), has some fun with the look and feel of the mankind’s future world but never lifts the suspense above the most mundane level. An episodic, tension-free, trope-filled movie whose layers and levels of difficulties reflect more aesthetically video-game plotting, After Earth is another DOA misfire that must bring into question the director’s ongoing worth to Hollywood.