Much will be said of M. Night Shyamalan managing once again to deliver the worst movie of the summer, and, sure enough, as both the director and co-screenwriter of After Earth, the man deserves everything that’s coming to him. However, I suspect an equal share of the blame belongs to Will Smith, who produced the film with his wife Jada Pinkett and came up with the original yarn, letting his passion for the tenets of Scientology blind him to some of the basic principles of drama and storytelling.
After Earth begins with a hackneyed voiceover by Smith’s son, Jaden, who, like most fourteen-year-olds, mumbles every other word as if to contain the urge to shuffle his feet and run upstairs to his room, screaming, “Parents just don’t understand!” This monotone narration, emblematic of the boy’s overall performance, comes as somewhat of a surprise, given his spirited demeanour in The Karate Kid (2010). Perhaps he found it difficult to focus on his lines while spewing out that ridiculous accent Shyamalan forces on all of the actors, a strange mix of southern and, uh, maybe African brogue with a tinge of who the hell cares. I certainly got distracted by it, and it’s a wonder I retained anything from that initial info dump.
Near as I can make out, humanity abandoned Earth after an alien invader sent down an army of genetically engineered monsters that don’t have eyes but can smell our fear. One day, Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) figured out a way to control his negative emotions and become invisible to the enemy. You’d figure an airtight suit might also have done the trick, but After Earth doesn’t concern itself with such inconsistencies. Come to think of it, you know what else could have killed the beasts without emitting pheromones? Obama’s mechanical drones. Just saying.
Anyway, Jaden Smith plays Cypher’s son, who feels guilty about letting his older sister (Zoe Isabella Kravitz) get killed during an attack. While transporting one of the monsters, he and his father crash on a savage world that, as per the title, happens to be Earth but might as well have been called “Breakfast McMuffin Fifteen” for all the difference it makes. In light of Shyamalan’s propensity for third-act reversals, I half expected Kitai to wake up from a dream at the end, but, no, the plot of After Earth turns out as straightforward as they come, following our protagonist as he literally goes from point A to point B in order to activate a space beacon.
The setup allows for a promising gimmick. Cypher has broken his legs, so our impulsive young hero must undertake the expedition with only radio support from his authoritative old man, working out his issues while facing off against prehistoric baboons, killer leeches, giant birds, and, of course, the alien prisoner. When I put it this way, After Earth may come across like a fun family rump, but the truth is I had trouble staying awake, owing in large part to Will Smith portraying his character as the Zoloft-addicted love child of Ben Stein and MTV’s Daria. To make matters worse, our castaways break contact halfway into the movie, so, at that point, we’re really just watching a teenager wave a plastic towel rack at digital effects.
The biggest problem, though, lies in the film taking itself far too seriously, treating every line like a ponderous statement about life. Consider the climactic battle atop a mountain that, a few moments prior, looked like an active volcano (what happened there?). We’re told over and over again that our young hero must control his dread to vanquish his adversary. That’s all fine and dandy as heavy-handed metaphors for Dianetics go, but what exactly does overcoming one’s fear entail? In After Earth, it basically amounts to Kitai deciding he’s going to kick ass all of a sudden and, well, that’s it. For crying out loud, even Obi Wan bothered to get higher ground in Revenge of the Sith (2005)!
It’s amazing how much Shyamalan’s latest offering reminds me of the Star Wars prequels. Here we have a previously celebrated director delivering an overwrought but visually interesting sci-fi tale that’s dragged down by stilted acting and a god-awful screenplay. The difference lies in George Lucas retaining just enough of his former glory to come up with small gems like these: “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; and hate leads to suffering.” In contrast, all I got from After Earth is that fear leads to top-grossing actors spending obscene amounts of money to indoctrinate their children into Scientology.