The most profound statement deadpanned by Will Smith’s character in After Earth are the words, “Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Now do not misunderstand me, danger is very real. But fear is a choice.” There are a litany of summer blockbusters to pay to see this summer, but if you have a choice, After Earth isn’t one of them. Smith used to be the king of summer blockbusters, but in recent years, he’s gotten stuck in a bigger slump than D. Wade.
After Earth is a lethal combination of Smith’s helicopter parenting and M. Night Shyamalan’s shoddy directing that leaves the film dead on arrival. Will spends much of the movie immobilized and in pain, watching his son traverse across a dangerous post-human Earth. It was so agonizing to watch that I winced with him for two hours.
The film starts out awkwardly by violating the “show, don’t tell” storytelling principle with boring exposition. Unfortunately, they don’t even tell it well. The backdrop for the movie is an intergalactic war, but no background is given on it after the opening voiceover is delivered by Jaden’s cracking teenage voice.
Here are the basics, though. One thousand years from now, humans are forced to abandon Earth due to global warming and other environmental factors. However, on their new planet, they are constantly under attack by genetically-engineered creatures known as the Ursa.
Cypher (Will Smith) is one of Earth’s most legendary warriors because of his ability to “ghost,” (an appropriate reference to Smith's fading blockbuster bankability) meaning he can suppress his emotions and become invisible to the Ursa, who sense fear. The story revolves around his temperamental son Kitai (Jaden), who is a warrior-in-training, but is unable to control his emotions and “ghost” like his father. As if it couldn’t get any more cliché, Kitai accompanies his father Cypher on his last mission before retirement, but the ship crash lands on Earth leaving Cypher with two broken legs and releases the Ursa they were transporting.
To save both of their lives, Cypher must embark on a harrowing 100-kilometer trek to the tail end of their ship and locate their homing beacon. Unfortunately, Kitai’s character arc compelled Jaden to whine and cry for two hours before making his hero turn. It’s not his fault. The script is dull, the story plods along and the direction is poor. It’s what you’d expect from a Shyamalan film.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan avoided throwing a twist into a plot that sorely needed one. It lacked imagination and was extremely formulaic from opening to closing credits. Pretty much every development in the plot can be seen coming a mile away. Shyamalan used to see dead people. Two of his last three films, including The Happening, have carried themes about our dying planet. I see a dying career.
After Earth’s action takes place on an uninhabitable Earth where our planet’s species have evolved, but aside from an oversized condor, Shyamalan doesn’t take advantage of that setting.
Instead, Jaden spends much of the second act being pursued by baboons and tigers. After Earth is supposedly a sci-fi flick, but it could have just as easily been Liam Neeson fending off wolves in Alaska. Shyamalan also makes the Cloverfield mistake – the predator is a looming presence, but isn’t seen until the final 10 minutes.
There’s a ton of generic sci-fi language and great visuals, but like all of Shyamalan’s scripts, After Earth takes itself too seriously. Therefore, the gregarious actor who portrayed Muhammad Ali and The Fresh Prince is forced to exude a deadpan demeanor.
The plot point that needs the most explanation is why, a 1000 years in the future, mankind’s strongest weapon against a threat is a double-bladed weapon called a cutlass. Best-case scenario, it can be viewed as Smith’s support for gun control. After all, this film is coded with all sorts of messages.
Although Will has openly stated that he doesn’t adhere to a specific religious doctrine, After Earth is clearly inspired by philosophies which originated from the Church of Scientology. However, it doesn’t matter what church Will and Jaden belong to, this film won’t have anyone singing its praises.