The most remarkable thing about “After Earth” is how uncannily Will Smith’s character and his son look like father and son.
I mean, just because they are actually father and son doesn’t mean it’s not convincing.
Outside of that, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is an inoffensive but relatively straightforward survival tale. But it’s in the future and in space, so that makes it cool, right?
Set a thousand years after humans are forced to abandon their spoiled home planet, 13-year-old military cadet Kitai Raige (Jayden Smith) finds himself in the shadow of his father, the legendary Gen. Cypher Raige (Will Smith). This doesn’t help the tepid relationship between the two. As Cypher prepares to go on one last mission before announcing his retirement, his wife, Faia Raige (Sophie Okonedo), suggests he take Kitai along for a little father-son bonding. He agrees, Kitai is excited for the interstellar trip, and all are happy.
You’d think by now people would know to just not go on “one last trip” ever. They always end in disaster.
The Raiges’ disaster comes in the form of a sudden and terrible asteroid storm. Because of Cypher’s intervening commands, the pilots are able to jump out of the path of part of the storm, but then find they have a whole ‘nother problem — the ship is in dire and immediate need of repairs, and the only planet they can make it to is Earth, which has been quarantined. But down they go, and the ship splits in half, killing everyone onboard except for the Raiges.
Cyper has two broken legs and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the one emergency beacon in their half of the ship is broken. Kitai must venture out into the wild to retrieve the other beacon on his own.
The climate has changed to such a degree that the earth freezes over every evening, and the oxygen levels are lower than on their home planet, so he must take an inhalable liquid to help his lungs cope. Roving bands of animals, including great herds of bison and a vicious congress of baboons, make the 100-kilometer journey even more treacherous. To make matters worse, a fear-sensing alien beast being carried by the ship for training purposes has also survived the crash — and begins to hunt Kitai.
This is really bad for him, because not only does Kitai look like he’s just learning how to juggle with seven chainsaws and torches at once while giving a speech to a room full of supermodels and the podium’s covered in spiders, but Cypher is renowned for being completely fearless, so in comparison the poor kid makes the Cowardly Lion look tough. The bulk of the movie, then, is a coming-of-age tale not only about Kitai overcoming a harsh planet, but his ample fear, as well.
The scenery, courtesy of Costa Rica, is beautiful (Utah’s own Canyonlands National Park serves as the backdrop for the new home planet). The story is pretty direct and holds few surprises, but the movie’s short enough that it doesn’t feel terribly thin.
But. Will Smith came up with the idea of the story (which was originally supposed to just be a camping trip gone wrong, but then someone said “You know what would make this better? If it were in the future. And in space!” Seriously.), and then Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (who wrote the book upon which “The Book of Eli” was based, and the screenplay for the videogame “Prey”) went to town on the screenplay, which I can’t help feeling is worse than the dialogue I used to make my dolls say before I could pronounce my “R’s.” They’ve also decided, and logically so, that future people talk with a different accent, so that takes a bit of getting used to.
The plot and circumstances mean there’s a lot of the Smiths acting all by themselves as their characters communicate remotely. This is OK for Will Smith, whose Cypher is the kind of stern, impenetrable father you might expect from a war hero without fear, and does such a good job at it that we also feel we’re under scrutiny. He’s probably the least likable character Will Smith has ever played, though by the end, while we still don’t particularly like him, we feel like we understand him.
It’s a little less OK for Jaden Smith. You can tell the 14-year-old tries hard and he’ll probably turn out to be a pretty decent actor, but he’s not quite there, which is bad when he’s the focus of the camera for most of the movie. “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Karate Kid” this ain’t. There are some bright spots, though, and he does seem to improve even in the course of the movie. His relative inexperience would probably be less easily noticed, too, if he didn’t have lines that made cardboard yawn and have to deliver them in a ridiculous manner.
“After Earth” is uneven and hardly novel, but does manage to rise above its mundaity and still makes a decent futurist survival story. Let’s just hope they smooth those troubled spots out before they finish the sequel (which, goody, is already in the works).