Will Smith once ruled the summer box office with a string of blockbuster action hits (Independence Day, Men in Black, Men in Black II). The streak eventually began to sputter as Smith branched out to more serious fare. But over the years, Smith has dipped back into the summer action well every now and then – though with noticeably inconsistent results (Wild Wild West, Bad Boys II, I, Robot, Hancock, Men in Black III).
Smith is back again this summer with After Earth, another big budget, sci-fi, action romp. Though more than capable (and still a big enough box office draw) to head a film like this on his own, After Earth leaves the veteran actor literally in the backseat as it pushes his rising star son (in real-life and in the movie) into the forefront – almost passing on the summer blockbuster torch so to speak.
Though just fourteen years old, Jaden Smith has already appeared in numerous films, starting with The Pursuit of Happyness with his dad, then moving onto a supporting role in The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, and eventually the lead in The Karate Kid remake.
In After Earth, a crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher (both with weird, unnecessary accents) stranded on Earth, one thousand years after unseen events forced humanity’s evacuation. With his father, legendary general, seriously injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help and save them both.
The film starts a little lifeless and slow – though to no real purpose. We find out almost nothing about past life on Earth and why they were forced to leave (apparently everything has evolved to kill humans for some reason) or what this new world they now inhabit looks like (other than a Utah-looking military training ground and a very brief glimpse at a Star Wars prequel-like city).
On the other hand, we are treated to a wealth magnificent visuals and special effects aboard the doomed spaceship and its ultimate resting place, a post-apocalyptic Earth. Abandoned by humans, the planet is now overrun with hordes of wildlife and lush vegetation. Though uncertain of the cause, everything – animals, plants, bugs, etc. – are now substantially larger, more fierce, and dangerous. Young Katai is dogged across ground, in water, and through the air by an array of stunningly captured, super-predatory beasts.
The action (which certainly ramps up in the second half) is punctuated by brief asides to rather clichéd characterizations and storyline. The elder Smith plays a tough-as-nails, near-emotionless father who has difficulty connecting with his rebellious, often whiny son (who, of course, is only rebellious because of his father’s emotional distance). They simultaneously blame themselves and each other for a tragic family incident a few years before and must also come to terms with it as they try to survive on the savage planet. We gradually learn this through shared flashbacks both father and son revisit often. Though a heartbreaking moment no doubt, most of the film’s emotion wrenches out of this moment, but it all seems forced and hollow. What ends up happening is that the film’s music (original score by James Newton Howard), not the actors’ performance that tells the audience when to feel, when to be in awe, and when to be scared.
Despite this weak display of emotion, the most interesting aspect of the film is still the father-son relationship. Cipher Raige is near helpless to and incapable of directly help his son, he can only give him advice and guide Kitai from afar – just like a normal parent. He (and all parents alike) is forced to let his child make his own mistakes and learn from them, often getting hurt in the process, but getting stronger as well. These movie characters may be elite ranger soldiers, but their internal struggle is universal. In the end, it does not save movie that is filled with hollow characters and a paint-by-numbers storyline, but it helps (as do the top notch special effects) – which is all you can really expect from a summer action movie.
You would not know it from the film itself (and certainly not from the pre-release advertising), but the film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Though his career has been in stark decline since 1996’s The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan is still a talented and capable director – he just needs a fresh start, and though After Earth is not particularly great, it could be the redirection he needs.
** out of 5 stars
After Earth opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 22 and plays locally at Chalmette Movies, The Theatres at Canal Place, and all three AMC theatres (Elmwood, Clearview, Westbank).
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