Review: "After Earth"

It’s not nearly as bad as its box-office thud and scathing reviews would suggest.

After Earth” is a very straightforward sci-fi tale about a young man earning his father’s respect, a task made more difficult because the boy is traumatized following his sister’s murder at the hands of an alien monster, and Dad just happens to be the most fearless man in the universe.  It’s the kind of movie Disney might have made in the 60s or 70s, with a lower budget and less sophisticated visual effects.  Before young adult fiction went mainstream with the likes of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” it was like this.

Once upon a time, director M. Night Shyamalan’s name was a marquee draw, but now the New Hitchcock has fallen so far that his involvement in a film is hidden, rather than advertised.  He does a solid job in the director’s chair here.  The pace is solid, the visual effects are captured nicely, and he gracefully works in flashbacks to tragedy – plus an eerie dream sequence in which the young hero achieves closure with his long-dead sister – in a manner reminiscent of his last really good movie, “Signs.”  (For the record, I liked “The Village” more than most viewers, but M.Night’s career went into a nose-dive more harrowing than the spaceship crash in “After Earth” from there.  I saw “The Last Airbender” in a theater where the projector died with 25 minutes to go, and have never felt even slightly motivated to watch the end of the movie.)

Nothing about “After Earth” is twisty or deceptive – it lays out the situation with military precision, as crippled elite warrior Will Smith gives his son (both in the movie and in real life) Jaden Smith a sitrep and sends him packing with limited supplies and plenty of remote support.  The objective and obstacles are clear; the movie ends when the mission does.  

There are some interesting sights along the way, from cool-looking (if not always entirely logical) futuristic gear to the natural splendor of a savage Earth.  The production design is interesting.  It looks like humanity raided every Pier One Imports and World Market store on the planet before bugging out into space, giving all of their buildings, ships, and hardware an organic, artsy, harmonious-with-nature look.  It’s a refreshing change from the bland-looking industrial tech most sci-fi movies serve up these days.

“After Earth” has many flaws, and they’re all unforced errors.  The big one is the whole “savage Earth” concept, which adds nothing to the story except allowing Shyamalan and/or Will Smith (who gets a story credit) to vent their dreary, fashionable eco-celebrity rage at pollution-happy humanity.  It’s almost a spiritual sequel to Shyamalan’s career-destroying opus about killer plants, “The Happening.”

The prologue tells us humanity destroyed the “paradise” of near-future Earth with our lousy smokestacks, so we had to relocate to another planet, and the Earth now literally hates us – we’re told that everything on the planet has “evolved” (in just 1000 years!) to “kill humans.”  And “climate change” now happens in real-time, causing verdant forests to freeze into arctic tundra each time the sun sets – but then the forests and animals just spring back to life the next day.  It’s agonizingly stupid, and completely unnecessary to the coming-of-age / mastering-your fears story which drives the plot.  The whole thing could have been set on some hostile alien planet and worked at least as well.  This would also have spared us the head-spinning five minutes of random technobabble it takes to explain why Will and Jaden’s ship crashes on the forbidden homeworld of humanity.

Also, after all that ominous setup about Earth as the most dangerous planet in the galaxy, savage Gaia’s efforts to bump off Jaden Smith are pretty lame.  There’s a pack of savage apes, a pack of lions, a giant bird that just wanted to feed her chicks, a spider that doesn’t even bother to bite him, and a toxic slug that comes closest to taking him out.  Nothing except the slug matches the determined malevolence of the alien monster that gets loose after the humans’ ship crash-lands.  The Earth’s anger at her biosphere-raping prodigal human children seems more like simmering resentment.

The alien monster is the acid-spitting sharp-clawed engine of the plot, for Jaden is an aspiring member of the warrior elite founded by his father to battle them.  The monsters are bio-weapons deployed by an unseen but hostile alien race.  For some reason they’re blind, but they can smell the chemicals released from the skin of frightened humans.  Do the humans don the sort of chemical-masking suits that are readily available today, and blow these monsters away from a safe distance with guns?  No, that would be unsporting, or something.  Instead, they must learn how to master their fear to render themselves invisible, and then hack the monsters to death with neat-looking but impractical shape-changing swords and spears.  You heard that right – the special forces of tomorrow deploy from starships, and then charge into battle with spears.

For unfathomable reasons, the actors are made to speak in a weird made-up accent that is probably supposed to represent human languages blurring together after a thousand years of living on a new world, but it comes off sounding more like phony Southern accents in a really bad high-school play about the battle of Gettysburg.  The acting between the Smiths is stilted as a result, until they seem to decide the crazy accents are stupid, and abandon them in the third reel, when it’s time to start shouting at each other. Will Smith, who became one of Hollywood’s top actors thanks to his easygoing charisma and comic timing, is stuck playing the most emotionless man alive, dispensing advice that sounds suspiciously like Dianetics while performing surgery without anesthesia on his own broken legs.  It’s not really what audiences buy tickets to a Will Smith movie to see.

(He’s also saddled with the dumbest character name in recent memory, Cypher Raige, which sounds like the name a World of Warcraft player might dream up for a night elf druid.  It’s hard not to chuckle every time his name comes up.)

Jaden Smith has top billing, and handles it quite well.  There may be rampant nepotism involved in the production – there have been sneers that Will gave the production to Jaden as a birthday present – but the younger Smith is really a decent actor.  He’s especially good at projecting the wounded innocence and frustrated love for a distant father that make his character work.   He’s easily good enough to have won his way into the Disney teen actor stable, back when “After Earth” would have been appearing on a double bill with “Escape from Witch Mountain.”  Now let’s see if he’s got a little Kurt Russell in him. 


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