Nepotism is hardly a new thing in Hollywood, which may be why nobody cares that Jaden Smith has been handed a golden ticket into the big leagues thanks to his daddy. Will Smith came up with the idea for After Earth himself, as a means of offering up another easy role for Jaden, who has already been given a generous familial boost with The Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid. Whether or not Jaden could make it on his own is an answer we may never know, but his lack of presence and overacting in After Earth suggest that perhaps Will needs to hold off on passing any torches.
Unfortunately, Jaden’s lack of charisma is only one of many problems, as the droll, humorless sci-fi flick hits the ground running in mud and never fully escapes. Well, let’s take that back, because there’s a significant amount of laughs to be found trying to decipher the corny accents Will and Jaden are trying to put on. It’s kind of like they were extras on the set of Downton Abbey, while other times it’s like they’re re-enacting scenes from The Help. Whatever those accents were, they’re a distraction. The oddly-paced story opens with a brief flash of the coming disaster, when a space ship holding famous military leader Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden), breaks to pieces upon entry into Earth. A flashback sets up that son is desperately walking in the father’s shadow, unable to meet his high expectations. Cypher helped stop an alien incursion by the Ursa, creatures who feed off fear, so immediately we know to be prepared for plenty of Yoda-like Zen philosophy.
Hallucinations clue us in to just how deep the resentment is between Cypher and Kitai, with a past death in the family causing a rift. In a last ditch effort to reconnect, they go out on a journey together, leading to the crash-landing vessel. They land on Earth, 1000 years after the humans left it behind for a new home called Nova Prime. In that time the planet has become overrun with wild animals, flourishing without humans around to hunt them to extinction. But they are still dangerous, and the air unbreathable, making it a dangerous place to be trapped. With Cypher’s legs shattered, it’s up to Kitai to make the distant hike to retrieve a rescue beacon, and along the way learn how to stop being a wimp and learn to kick butt like dad. He’ll also have to deal with a loose Ursa, waiting out in the wilds for an inevitable showdown.
Perennial punching bag M. Night Shyamalan is behind the camera for this one, but it remains free from his trademark twists and turns. While he does receiving a co-writing credit, the story belongs to Will Smith, so they perhaps share equally in its general lousiness. Shyamalan, whose recent ineptitude has been overstated by those who like to kick a director when he’s down, actually puts out a solid, technical spectacle with grand imagery of raging waterfalls, vast jungles, and other imposing natural barriers. The creatures, most of which are digitally-recreated wild animals, are frequently threatening and occasionally majestic. The film looks good, but technical acumen have never been Shyamalan’s weakness. Narrative momentum, on the other hand, has been an issue, and the film just feels flat from start to finish.
A major drawback is that the guy we really want to see is laid up in a space shuttle looking like someone just ran over his dog….or crushed his legs. It’s just not all that exciting to watch Will talking to Jaden over a monitor screen for two excruciating hours; dispensing incomprehensible pearls of wisdom like “Recognize your power. This will be your creation”. Yeah, what? Jaden, who has had his father or the irresistible Jackie Chan to lean on in the past, is essentially on his own here. He’s expected to carry most of the emotional and physical load, and while he handles himself capably when it comes to smacking down the feral creatures, he’s not good for much else. There are flashes of his father’s boundless charm and talent that peek through every now and then, especially during the rare occasions he cracks that famous Smith smile.
The stakes may be life-or-death, but the threat never rises above the level of the bullies in The Karate Kid. There’s never any doubt of the outcome, and the simplified story leaves little room to make Kitai or Cypher compelling characters. Shyamalan emerges from this the best of all, although to say After Earth is more enjoyable than The Last Airbender is probably damning with faint praise.