Let’s get one thing out of the way: After Earth is not, despite whatever you’ve heard, the World’s Worst Film. It isn’t responsible for global hunger; it doesn’t cause cancer; it’s not up there with the scourge of Christmas-season shopping mall traffic. It’s actually a step up from the past few films directed by M. Night Shyamalan, although that is indeed faint praise – I think The Last Airbender probably should be explored for its carcinogenic properties, and The Happening made audiences everywhere lose their collective lunch.
But there’s a special place in movie purgatory for stars who use their Hollywood clout to push through projects that have no business seeing the light of day, and After Earth, a vanity project for Will Smith, puts the multiple agendas of its shepherd over the interests of his moviegoing flock. I’m sure Mr. Smith owns a palatial estate with a very nice private screening room, and this film would be ideally shown there and only there, maybe at Thanksgiving. For him to wedge it into the crowded multiplex marketplace is comparable to my dad renting billboard space to show off his footlocker of family photos.
Based on a story conceived by Smith himself, After Earth slaps a coat of sci-fi paint over a video-game narrative with pseudo-philosophical goals. It’s a self-actualization lecture dressed up as the world’s most joyless action movie. The story takes place 1,000 years after humanity has abandoned Earth thanks to environmental disasters of our own making. Now we all live somewhere called Nova Prime, and our chief fighting force – the elite Ranger Corps – defends humanity against the Ursa, a species of horrific lunging monsters with no visual abilities. Instead, they smell our fear – yes, seriously – which forces the Rangers to develop heightened control over their emotions. Those who can completely conquer fear are called Ghosts.
Smith plays the biggest, baddest Ghost, General Cypher Raige (where do they get these names?), a war hero who seems to have vanquished pretty much all of his emotions; taciturn to a fault, Smith plays Raige as if the man is in a permanent state of constipation. This, as you can imagine, makes him the least fun dad ever. He doesn’t exactly enjoy a warm relationship with his teenage son Kitai, who owns too many of the standard teen liabilities to advance from Cadet to Ranger: Kitai is rebellious, impetuous, and worst of all capable of fear. Because he’s, you know, a human being. But that excuse doesn’t fly with Papa Cypher.
For no particular reason the son accompanies the father on his latest mission, and their ship crash-lands back on Earth, coincidentally enough, leaving the Raiges in a pickle. Cypher’s legs are broken, so the inexperienced Kitai must trek alone to activate a distress beacon that will bring help. The beacon is in the rear of the ship, which broke off 100 kilometers away from them in the crash. And Earth is no longer human-friendly, with wild climate shifts and animals who think Kitai means “lunch” in whatever language they speak.
So most of the film belongs to Jaden Smith, Will’s real-life son, whose Kitai must advance through different levels of natural hazards in order to get to the beacon. There ought to be a digital readout in the lower corner or the screen that shows us how many points he’s racking up as he moves from one adventure to the next. Instead, we get Cypher’s constant digital presence – he’s monitoring Kitai’s every move with an array of cameras and telemetry devices sewn into his son’s high-tech suit, and he’s always ready to offer “advice” about Being In The Moment and Controlling His Fear.
This annoys Kitai, understandably, and gives Jaden license to act hounded and harried – kind of like a kid given chores by his dad, only to have dad follow him around and tell him why he’s doing it wrong. (Maybe the movie should have been released next weekend, for Father’s Day.) The trouble is, 14-year-old Jaden isn’t a very good actor yet, and his slight shoulders aren’t up to the task of carrying the emotional weight of a feature film. He doesn’t really look like he wants to be there at all.
The film’s momentum is brisk enough, but there’s a humorlessness to the affair that saps the life out of what ought to be an exhilarating series of adventures. Kitai is out on his own for the first time, and his character has been established as headstrong and overconfident; why not let some slack into the rope, and show the kid occasionally enjoying himself? But I suppose that would get in the way of the lecturing. Shyalaman does a reasonable job moving things along, and technically After Earth looks and sounds like a real big-budget blockbuster. But it’s a soulless, enervating experience – the anti-Summer movie. Rating: 3 out of 10