There’s a lot to like about the new science fiction film After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Will and Jaden Smith. From the wonderfully organic feel of the far future world to the hazardous asteroid storm that damages their ship far from a safe planet, to the smart fabrics and tech the film should be a home run for us sci-fi fans.
But it’s not.
In fact, the storyline ends up quite predictable, the juxtaposition of tech allowing interplanetary travel but unable to perform basic emergency medical care baffling, and the acting quality? It’s some of the most lackluster acting I’ve seen in years. Even Will Smith, as legendary warrior Cypher, is so unengaged on screen it felt like they filmed a dress rehearsal rather than the cast actually performing for the camera.
The story is set a thousand years in the future where Earth has been destroyed by pollution (where have we seen that story before?) and mankind has colonized other planets. Turns out, however, that we aren’t alone, and aliens called Skrel have bred vicious creatures called Ursas that have one purpose: to track down and slaughter humans. The Ursa can’t see, however, they’ve been bred to sense fear. But that’s a weakness: “ghosting” warriors who have completely control over their emotions are invisible to the Ursa and offer a way for the fearsome creatures to be destroyed.
Cypher (Will Smith) is the first great ghosting warrior, but while he was away making the planets safe for humankind, an Ursa ravaged his family’s compound, killing daughter Senshi (Zoe Isabella Kravitz), while the young Kitai (Jaden Smith) hid and watched. Kitai is wracked by guilt over his inability to stop his sister’s death and Cypher is also torn, though Kitai believes his father blames him for not defending his sister against the fierce creature.
In an attempt to improve their relationship, Cypher brings Kitai with on a jaunt to another planet, but they end up crash landing on a barren planet, Earth, covered in verdant plant life and with animals “bred to do one thing: kill humans” (but why? by whom?). The landing destroys the spacecraft, leaving Cypher stuck inside with two broken legs and a severed femoral artery. Oddly, there’s no medical technology on the ship that can help Cypher stay alive, but it’s okay, he remains calm and detached, guiding his son Kitai’s dash across 100km of hostile planet to reach the tail section of the plane and the all important emergency beacon to bring the necessary rescue.
After Earth is really all about Kitai learning to master his emotions, handle stressful and dangerous situations maturely and learn to know when to trust his dad’s advice and when to listen to his own instincts. In other words, a typical “hero’s journey” of myth. The situation is certainly challenging, with limited resources and unknown dangers, but the critical problem with the film is that Jaden Smith is just not a good enough actor to bring this rather one-dimensional teen to life. Instead of us anxiously hoping he’ll overcome, you’ll find yourself yawning and waiting for something interesting to happen on screen instead.
When the climactic scene finally arrives, it’s so obvious that it has to occur that there’s no drama and I found myself drawing comparisons to similar epiphanies in films like Avatar and The Matrix. In fact, there’s a scene in After Earth that suddenly made me yearn for Keanu Reeves to be in the movie. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
In fact, the more I thought about the mythic underpinnings of the film, the design and use of the two-handed “cutlass” as the weapon of choice for the Jedi, um, I mean, Rangers, the need to be in the present moment and similar zen mumbo-jumbo, and even the design of the ship and homeland, the more I realized that what Shyamalan has created is an extension of the Star Wars universe. And if this is what the film industry has in store for us starting in 2014, well, I might be turning to the dark side myself.
To be fair, it’s difficult to create a new science fiction franchise from scratch, without a best-selling series as a foundation, and the core concepts are quite interesting. Perhaps in the hands of a better director, or perhaps with a different cast that could engage us in the characters, and maybe just a little bit less predictability could have made After Earth a really good sci-fi flick. As it is, I’d say it’ll be a good two hour popcorn movie when it gets to HBO, but save your money and skip seeing it in the theater.