The Smiths crash land on a post-apocalyptic future Earth and must survive the planet's various perils. Does it work, or does it crash and burn? 411's Jeremy Wilson checks in with his full review.
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan Written by: M. Night Shyamalan & Gary Whitta Based on a story by: Will Smith
Kitai Raige: Jaden Smith Cypher Raige: Will Smith Faia Raige: Sophie Okonedo Senshi Raige: Zoë Isabella Kravitz Commander Velan: Glenn Morshower Security Chief: Kristofer Hivju
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images. Running Time: 100 minutes
After Earth is a thudding, dull catastrophe, comfortably ranking as one of the worst films of 2013. That's saying something in a year that has already featured Texas Chainsaw 3D, A Haunted House, Scary Movie V, Identity Thief and Movie 43. Then again, this is an M. Night Shyamalan film we're talking about, so perhaps it shouldn't come as any great surprise. What's worse is that because it's so clearly Will Smith's love letter to Scientology, it ultimately will be placed alongside Battlefield Earth as superstar-driven blockbusters which resulted in egg on the faces of their mega-stars and giant bombs anchoring their resumes. To be fair, this doesn't match the all-time ridiculous awfulness of John Travolta's Battlefield Earth, but in some ways, Ater Earth might be worse. Instead of just embarrassing himself, M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, Will Smith brought his son Jaden into the proceedings, foisting his unprepared and inexperienced son upon an unsuspecting public and a group of critics grown skeptical after years of Shyamalan disasters.
They were so proud of themselves though, the folks behind After Earth. I know this, because they practically said as much. They trumpeted their film's extensive backstory and universe, detailed in pages and pages available via After Earth's press kit and in blogs leading up to the film's release. The fact that so little of those details and world-building made it into the movie isn't shocking, but is likely a result of one of two things. Either writer-producer-star Smith and writer-directior Shyamalan mistakenly believed they had a franchise on their hands and that they'd be able to expand on all of that in future films; or, the editing process ruthlessly dispensed with those details, exclusively choosing to focus on the father-son dynamic and the rather simplistic survival story that masquerades as a Scientology parable. Or probably, a little of both. Whatever the reasoning, the resulting movie is neither smart, nor interesting, ending up as one of the worst science fiction films in recent memory.
Contrary to what its defenders (and enablers) might charge, I don't actually enjoy panning the newest film from Shyamalan and Smith(s). I'm someone who actually didn't hate The Village or Seven Pounds, two films widely regarded as turning critical and public support against each of them. In the case of Smith (the elder), it's easy to see what went wrong here. He's a big movie star who thought up a decent little story and wanted to use it to make a movie with his son that would help elevate him to become a bigger star. I get it and I don't particularly blame him for trying (we all want the best for family). However, we'll come back to that in a moment.
As for M. Night Shyamalan, the answer is slightly more confounding. A once celebrated director who seemingly bought into his own hype and let his ego run wild, Shyamalan has, at this point in his career, become a director-for-hire, seemingly an afterthought in serious Hollywood and critical circles. The man who rocked the world with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable has flailed about for over a dozen years, helming one debacle after another, each seemingly worse than the next: Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and now After Earth. It's gotten to the point that Shyamalan's many failures (some rather spectacular) have even forced a reconsideration of his well-thought of films and have basically reduced his name and reputation to that of an albatross. There's a reason you've barely seen the director's name in any of the marketing for After Earth. Sony, for better or worse, decided to sell the film as a Smith family sci-fi survival film and left the director's name out as much as humanly possible. So in this case, the brunt of this particular cinematic debacle may actually fall harder on the Smiths than on Shyamalan.
After Earth tells the story of Cypher and Kitai Raige (Will and Jaden Smith), a father and son from the remnants of humanity that now live on Nova Prime. Due to an unspecified cataclysm (both natural and man-made reasons are intimated), humanity was ushered off of Earth by a peacekeeping force known as The Ranger Corps. However, once they arrived on Nova Prime, mankind was met by the S'krell, an alien race we never meet, but who wanted the planet before we got there. In order to combat our presence, the S'krell deploy Ursas, monsters who locate, feast on and defile humans by sensing their fear. While the film starts 1000 years later with a literal bang as The Smiths' spaceship crash lands on Earth (along with truly horrendous narration), the following 15 minutes or so is told through flashbacks (a recurring device used throughout the film). We learn that Kitai has been rejected by The Ranger Corps., as he struggles with his own fears and insecurities, and that his father Cypher is returning home from a particularly long deployment. Adding to Kitai's issues, his father is the most celebrated hero humanity has, a General in the Rangers Corps., who has perfected the ability of “ghosting.” Ghosting is the ability to go undetected by an Ursa through removing all fear.
After Faia (Sophie Okonedo) nudges her husband into taking Kitai with him on his last training exercise before his impending retirement, the pair are eventually the only remaining survivors of the resulting crash. Once on Earth, Cypher is badly hurt, forcing Kitai to make the 100km trek through the jungle to retrieve the last remaining deep space homing beacon, their only means of calling for help. On his own except for his father's communciated guidance, Kitai must struggle to control himself and his fear as he battles and runs from numerous dangers as well as an escaped Ursa who could easily track him.
Well that doesn't sound so bad, does it? A nice, simple father-son story told through a colorful science fiction and adventure vein. Yet, it doesn't work. In fact, I actually think that if Smith, Shyamalan and Whitta had just dropped the sci-fi angle altogether and gone with the original concept of a father and son crashing their car in a remote mountainous area, it would have made the movie instantly better. But they didn't, so what's left is one of the most inane sci-fi stories you're likely to see this year and maybe even this decade. What am I talking about? Well, apparently in the future of After Earth (a mere 1000 years or so), evolution has turned Earth back over to the dinosaurs and while humanity has mastered lightspeed and deep space homing beacons, we still fight with pointy sticks. Fancy pointy sticks, yes, but pointy sticks nonetheless. Cypher, Kitai and the Rangers apparently have lost the ability or will to create and use guns or laser weapons to fight the Ursas, so humanity is basically left to fight with Darth Maul's kendo stick, a weapon that can apparently change forms into a sword or scythe or whatever else they want (except a weapon that'll allow them to avoide having to go right up to the Ursa). Hey, as long as everything looks cool, the actual appropriateness doesn't really matter.
However, let's be honest. This isn't just a simple father-son, coming-of-age story. As I was watching After Earth, bored and feeling myself slowly begin to nod off, I was struggling to pin down what they wanted this movie to be and what wasn't working. And then it dawned on me. The “ghosting,” the celebrated general and robotic father, the whimpering, immature son having flashbacks to witnessing the death of his sister and the movie's tagline of “Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” After Earth is obviously and unabashedly a Scientology film.
The Smiths have long been associated with the religion (although have seemingly never come right out and admitted they're followers) and After Earth unabashedly tells its story through the religion's teachings. The film's big enemy – even more than the S'krell or Ursa or Earth itself – is emotion and fear. Cypher Raige is the cleansed “Thetan” that everyone is striving to be like, while his son can't let go of the past and the memories that are the foundation of his pain and fear. Cypher “audits” his son Kitai as he makes his journey by using the control panel and the son's “Smart Fabric” suit (E-meter anyone?) that monitors the boy's vital signs, even allowing his father to know when he's lying. The climax of the movie isn't some spectacular action sequence or powerful emotional moment, but when Kitai finds inner peace and control over the physical world, finally conquering his fear, realizing his “Ranger” potential and killing the Ursa. Science – through evolution and psychiatry – is warped to indistinguishable lengths and becomes the enemy. Honestly, it's not that hard to see the parallels, especially once you realize what's going on.
The problem is not that it's a film using Scientology ideas to tell a story. The problem is that it's executed incredibly poorly and lacks even the batshit levels of crazy of something like Battlefield Earth. This is just a drawn-out, Smith family vanity piece bore. What's more is that there is a minor involved in this sad vanity project who shouldn't have been put into the situation he finds himself in.
Jaden Smith is terrible in After Earth and yet it's not really his fault. Not only is he asked to play a highly unlikable teenager who constantly does the wrong thing (he's not on his journey for more than five minutes before he throws a rock at a Simian/Baboon-like creature), but gets out of it because the story is written to get him out of it, he's also asked to basically carry a large movie on his slight, inexperienced shoulders. Many older actors have trouble being in a movie where there are large chunks featuring only them on screen, but couple that with playing off a robotic father in your ear and CG monsters every five minutes, and Jaden simply gets overwhelmed by the task. The younger Smith is just far too inconsistent in his performance, including a cringe-worthy scene in which he finally confronts his father (via long distance), and the dead scenes and silence that pervade the movie (and would be welcome in other blockbusters) instead reinforce the young star's lack of charisma and inability to keep an audience's attention. The fact that Will Smith's son lacks the charisma necessary is ultimately the biggest thing one takes from sitting through After Earth, only reinforced by Will's intentional lack of charisma. Nobody is playing to their strengths in this movie and the result is an embarrassment for all involved.
Which leads me to the elder Smith. It's his story (he even gets a credit for it), he's a producer and was obviously the guiding force for the film. Ego and nepotism fed his belief that he could bend the Hollywood system to his will, that the days of the old “star system” were alive and well. Well, they're not. They're long gone and no longer can Will Smith's name ensure a big opening and solid hit. He sought to make After Earth a launching pad: for his son, for his religion, for his reemergence as a box office draw. The movie's failure is his failure, on all counts. Jaden may, in fact hopefully can, recover. Just ask Anjelica Huston and Sofia Coppola, young stars who gave disastrous performances in their fathers' films at young ages only to recover and build long-lasting, strong careers on their own. Hopefully, After Earth goes down as Will's failure, a stain on the career of the father and not on the son. After all, Jaden is still only 14, asked to do things seasoned veterans three times his age would find difficult. In fact, his own father should have known that; he had to do similar things in I Am Legend.
Make no mistake, After Earth is a failure on almost every level. From the terrible acting, paper-thin script, lackluster direction (there's never a proper sense of scope or surroundings), weak special effects, boring pacing and eye-rolling Scientology parallels, the film is a debacle of the highest order. It may not be as giddily bad as Battlefield Earth or Wild Wild West, or as infuriating as Lady in the Water or The Happening, but that doesn't make it much better. If anything, it might be worse. At least we still remember those movies. It's doubtful anyone will remember After Earth months, much less years, from now.
The 411: After Earth is a gigantic, boring, ugly, nonsensical, poorly written, directed and acted Smith family vanity project that is an embarrassment for all involved. 14-year-old Jaden Smith (as Kitai Raige) is simply overwhelmed by the task of carrying the film on his shoulders, his performance inconsistent and at times embarrassing. His father Will isn't much better, playing the robotic General Cypher Raige, who is stuck behind a console for the majority of the movie. The movie has a severe lack of genuine anything, forcing young Kitai to square off with some very pissed off and ugly CG monsters and a futuristic Earth environment constantly trying to kill both father and son. However, what's worse than the rather simplistic father-son survival story is the film's obvious parallels with Scientology, a religion the Smiths have been associated with for years. After Earth might have made a pretty good video game, but as a movie it's a disaster for both Smiths and M. Night Shyamalan, the director-for-hire roped into turning Will Smith's vision into the kind of blockbuster the elder Smith is so known for. Ultimately, both men fail and as a result have crafted one of 2013's true bombs. Not Recommended.