Science fiction has been kind to Will Smith, so it’s no wonder he comes back to it every few years. He doesn’t get an “Independence Day” or a “Men in Black” every time he goes to the well. Sometimes it’s “I, Robot” or “I Am Legend.” Add to that second list “After Earth,” a new space opera from director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” “The Village,” “The Last Airbender”) who helms from his own screenplay with Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”) from a story by Will Smith.
A moderately high-tech “Robinson Crusoe in Space,” “After Earth” takes place 1,000 years after the human race has been forced to abandon Earth, rendered uninhabitable by our own bad behavior. Smith’s son Jaden Smith stars as Kitai, who hasn’t yet made the grade as a Ranger, crash-lands on Earth with his badly injured father, a legendary general in the Ranger Corps (Will Smith). Father and son have a troubled relationship, which comes to the fore when Kitai has to travel overland to signal for help, battling the dangerous new species that now rule the planet and an alien menace that escaped during the crash. Some modest suspense is generated by the audience’s knowing what Kitai does not: that his father’s injuries are worse than he’s let on, and that he’s taking painkillers that might cause extreme drowsiness while he’s guiding his son by way of virtual reality walkie-talkies.
But that’s nothing compared to the drowsiness the audience may feel with what is ultimately a very typical father/son antagonist story, wrapped inside a man vs. nature survival tale. There are allusions, whether intentional or not, to “Avatar,” “The Hunger Games” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” all of which were more inventive and more popular with the critical teenage audience. While none of this breaks new ground, it does provide an effective showcase for Jaden Smith, who at 14 may however be a year or two past his optimum cuteness.
Oddly, Shyamalan has opted to have his actors speaking in an affected, stilted accent which doesn’t sound natural and gets in the way of some of the performances, notably Jaden Smith’s. And frankly, it wasn’t necessary. High school students complain about Shakespeare’s English to this day, and that’s only a few hundred years old. Old English isn’t even recognnizable as English to most people, and you’d think a thousand years from now you’d have a smiliar problem. It would sound like an entirely different language, so you might as well just let your actors speak naturally.
We’d also be justified in wondering whether some of the CGI critters roaming this dystopian Earth could actually have evolved in a mere thousand years. That being said, other than some big, snarly cougar-critters, the special effects in bringing most of these beasties to life are very good.
As far as battling the CGI critters, you’d also think a thousand years from now, when interstellar travel is apparently common, we’d have better weapons than high-tech, double-ended Swiss Army knives to do it with.
A visually stunning movie, “After Earth” was shot by Hollywood veteran Peter Suschitzky (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Mars Attacks!”) with the new Sony F65 4K digital camera. At this point, only die hard purists are resisting the digital revolution, and “After Earth” is a convincing testament to the resolution, sharpness, color rendition and subtle palette modern digital is capable of.
That doesn’t change the fact that “After Earth” is a plodding, predictable story that feels longer than its hour and forty minute running time. The irony here is that while “After Earth’s” visuals strut their stuff best on the big screen, the story only merits Red Box.