Review: ‘After Earth’ May Not Be Great, But It’s Entirely Watchable

By May 31, 2013
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The traditional slate of summer blockbusters wouldn’t make you believe it, but science fiction doesn’t always have to be so… big. The works of greats like Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury told intimate stories with an otherworldly edge. TV gets it too: “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” were epic shows, but not on a grand scale.

So it’s refreshing to see Hollywood take a stab at this approach with After Earth, a man-vs-nature pulp adventure that feels more like a “Trek” episode than anything J.J. Abrams has brought to screen. Will Smith and his padawan learner/son Jaden costar in the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, who leaves his heir-to-the-Spielberg-throne crown at home in favor of composed direction and a surprising amount of restraint. It even feels less of a “Will Smith vehicle” — which may throw Independence Day and Men in Black fans for loop. As two humans stranded on a post-apocalyptic version of Earth, Will takes a backseat, guiding his son through an ecological obstacle course bent on wiping them both off the planet. Think The Happening, plus bloodthirsty baboons.

1,000 years after man fled the noxious wastelands of Earth, military commander Cypher Raige and his family reside on the rocky terrain of Nova Prime. Life hasn’t completely restructured into a Starship Troopers-esque military society, but it’s close, with Cypher’s dependent Kitai (Jaden Smith) idolizing dear old dad’s Ranger status and boot camping his way there. But Kitai isn’t a perfect soldier — he’s capable of being afraid, making him vulnerable to the mankind’s latest enemy, an alien race that smells fear. Cypher is known as a “ghost,” one of the few soldiers who can maneuver undetected through alien swarms and cut them to bits with his futuristic switchblade. There’s a tremendous amount of world building and familial drama conducted in the first 20 minutes of After Earth and its Shyamalan at his best. He sets rules, explores his surroundings, and draws upon our most fundamental conflicts in life. After Earth does it with high-tech gadgetry and growling monsters. It’s entirely watchable.

Then the duo wind up on Earth and it becomes apparent there isn’t much steam left in the film’s grand concept. A routine training mission goes off the rails when Cypher and Kitai’s spaceship collides with a storm of rogue asteroids. Everyone is killed and the ship is split in two, leaving the hero and his boy to figure out a way home. With two broken legs, Cypher is out of commission, so it’s up to Kitai to run, jump, swim, and flying squirrel his way through the aggressive terrain. Will Smith has the gravitas to pull off a sidelined role; few actors can deliver dialogue akin to video game tutorial narration with weight. Even if he’s doing it with a bizarre, evolved accent, it’s still Smith being the king of movie sci-fi.

The movie’s biggest problem is Jaden Smith doesn’t have that same magic. Like Kitai’s forced ambition to be the solider that his Dad is, the younger Smith is rigid, overdramatic, and out of place as the lead of the film. Shymalan finds ways to work around it; the episodic nature of the quest keeps Jaden on the run. Kitai spends most of the movie running from monkeys, birds, snow, and a fear-eating bugger, and with lots of on-location shooting (filled with plastique CGI critters), the performance is physical and realistic. When it slows down, Jaden drops the ball. In a scene where Kitai’s haunting past bubbles over, he lashes out at his father over speaker phone and it plays less like an emotional breakdown than a big ol’ temper tantrum. Whatever gene Will possesses that allows him to exude charisma, he does not seem to have passed it on.

Without a great performance to do the heavy lifting, After Earth meanders through its episodic levels. Sharp photography from Peter Suschitzky (Cosmopolis) and James Newton Howard’s worldly score make the movie an enjoyable ride with little payoff. But here’s the Shyamalan twist you’ve been waiting for: the director gets science fiction. The script and clunky central performance may not service his passion for it, but a thoughtful, small-scale take on blockbuster-worthy material earns Shyamalan some cred back (The Last Airbender is in the past, people). After Earth wouldn’t impress Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury, but it would make them proud to know that at least someone’s trying.

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Matt Patches
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Film.com, Hollywood.com, MTV, and he is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room. He continues to love Groundhog Day.