What’s more worrying about After Earth, the fact that Jaden Smith is the lead or it’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan? It’s a close call but either way this big budget sci-fi bore-fest continues Shyamalan’s career freefall, taking young Jaden’s with it. It’s also hard to believe that Will Smith’s presence actually worsens this, and if anyone thought Shyamalan couldn’t get any lower than The Happening, think again.
Set sometime in the future, an environmental catastrophe forces the human race to leave Earth to a new planet called Nova Prime. This new world is attacked by aliens, large monsters called Ursas that hunt humans through sensing their fear. The human race’s saviour? Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who defeats them by learning how to suppress his fears – a technique called ‘ghosting’ – thus making him invisible to the creatures.
When Cypher takes his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) on a training mission carrying one of these Ursas, their flight is caught in an asteroid shower which makes them crash-land on a now desolate Earth. With Cypher injured, it is up to Kitai to locate the beacon to call for help, but that means tackling dangerous animals which now inhabit the place – as well as the escaped Ursa.
Similar to Tom Cruise’s Oblivion released a few months earlier, this a far less polished take on a post-apocalyptic Earth. There is a glimpse of what could have been as a sabre-toothed cat squares off against a giant condor, potentially giving hope of a modern day The Land That Time Forgot. But alas, everything is focused on Kitai’s survival and bonding moments with his dad, spiraling the film into an insipid and flat spectacle.
It’s also pretty dim, the idea of ‘ghosting’ – to be invisible to the alien creatures by not fearing them – is pointless because why would you fight these things hand-to-hand anyway when there’s clearly the technology to take them out with guns or machines.
However, the story is far from the worst thing about this – that award goes to the acting. Smith performs like he has a lemon shoved in his mouth as well as up his butt – a constipated look is all he displays throughout. But let’s take nothing away from his son’s performance: it’s awful, non-engaging and emotionless.
Jaden meanders around with puppy-dog eyes without eliciting any form of feeling, and when he’s attacked by various rabid animals, you find yourself rooting for them to make a meal out of him. As much as he has his father guiding him, on and off screen, it cannot be emphasised enough how bad the acting is.
With this being Shyamalan’s first film that’s not his from his own story, you could perhaps forgive his part in this. But no, even on a technical level, this reeks of cheapness despite its high budget. Usually spaceships and the like – interior and exterior – can easily look the part on a shoestring budget (see District 9). Well, the spaceship here is like something out of Star Trek – not the recent movies but the 60’s TV show.
After Earth is a wholly underwhelming and lacklustre affair, showing that having too much Hollywood power can go to one’s head (Smith handpicked the director and had total creative control). The father and son combo may have brought success in The Pursuit of Happyness, but here it ends up being to them what Battlefield Earth was to John Travolta (yes, that is also implying a Scientology connection despite Smith’s continual denials). A chilling warning to even the most hard-core sci-fi fans.