It's become a popular pastime of late to pile on poor M. Night Shyamalan. I certainly did my share of it three years ago with his last misfire. But when I first learned of the Sixth Sense director teaming with Will Smith, one of the most dependable draws in the world, for the kind of futuristic fable that's Smith's forte, I hoped desperately that Shyamalan could arrest the descent that began with 2004's The Village (or earlier, if you hated 2000's Unbreakable). Instead, we have After Earth, a listlessly written, lackadaisically executed story which can't seem to do much more than march through its preordained paces.
Set over a thousand years after some vague cataclysm forced the last remnants of mankind to seek shelter on a far-off alien world, the film has a routine space voyage beset by a wayward storm of asteroids, which in turn leaves legendary General Cypher Raige (Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) stranded on the quarantined, hostile remains of their once-planet. With a life-threatening wound sidelining father, the onus is on son to retrieve the beacon that will signal for help before their window for survival closes, all the while steering clear of the alien "Ursa," which is loose and out for blood.
There are many issues with After Earth (pacing, performance, etc.) but the biggest is that it's what I call a "fake" science-fiction movie. Oh, it has all the trappings -- space ships, aliens, futuristic tech -- but you could just as easily strip all that stuff out -- turn the spaceship into an airplane, turn the "Ursa" into a (duh) bear -- and it wouldn't really change the story one iota. Given that, it makes me wonder why producer/star Smith and writer/director Shyamalan went to the trouble (and expense) of envisioning an entire otherworldly tableau when the result they were going to arrive at was so uninspired and ordinary ("John Carter of Bel-Air!" shouted one theater attendee recently after seeing the trailer).
And really, just to be fair, this is fairly un-Shyamalan-like, both in its content and, to some extent, its execution (there's no twist ending to be had, for one, which I guess is itself kind of a twist ending -- weird). It seems to me that what After Earth is really about is yet another attempt by Smith the elder to create a star vehicle for Smith the younger. While I enjoyed The Karate Kid remake from 2010 immensely (and I'm actually surprised they didn't crank out a sequel to that one, as the window for that would seem to be closing as well), at this stage I wish Will would stop trying so hard and just let his kid be a kid.
Much of the drama of After Earth's story (which Smith himself concocted) hinges on an emotional arc that, while compelling, is simply beyond the capabilities of Jaden Smith to embody and convey. That's not meant as a slight on him, but simply an acknowledgement that while he may get there eventually as a performer, he's just not there yet. This situation becomes doubly problematic when you realize that it's Jaden who the bulk of the film is resting upon for much of the running time, with Will largely reduced to an extended supporting role as the injured mentor providing (occasional) instruction via voicover.
And so, with a leading man who doesn't have enough charisma to command the screen, and a director who won't (or can't) do much to help, we're left yet again with an example of why Will Smith is a true global star. Whatever interest we can muster in the proceedings (which, beyond all the disposable "alien planet" hugger-mugger, is really about a son trying to measure up to the considerable shadow cast by his living legend of a father -- art imitating life, perhaps?) comes entirely from how invested we as an audience are in Smith's well-established onscreen superstar persona, which has evolved seamlessly to the elder statesman role he plays here.
Unfortunately, each time they'd cut away to Jaden outrunning some mutant monkey or whatever, I kept wanting to see how Will was going to deal with his increasingly-dire situation. When the narrative is set up the way it is here, that's a big problem, and in this case it becomes an insurmountable one -- even with a potentially compelling premise. The best thing about After Earth is that, unlike the worse examples of Shyamalan's excess, it's not bogged down by an oppressive runtime. At just over 90 minutes, it doesn't really stick around long enough to become actively offensive. It comes and it goes, and then it's forgotten. C