Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Kravitz, Sophie Okonedo
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: June 7
In the distant future, mankind is living on a far-off planet after Earth has become uninhabitable. On a routine intergalactic mission, a ship crashes on planet Earth (what are the odds?). The only survivors are decorated soldier Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Katai (Jaden Smith). Since Cypher is injured, it’s up to Katai to travel the 100km to find the rescue beacon.
There was a lot of bad press before After Earth screened: It’s probably because it looks like a vanity project and act of bare-faced nepotism by producer/star/co-writer Will Smith. Certainly it’s unlikely that Jaden would headline a $130 million picture on his own. People generally don’t favour nepotism that benefits someone else, that goes double during a recession and if it’s on such an epic scale.
While After Earth is not an especially good film, it’s not quite the honker that people would assume it would be. Yes it’s poor, but equally bad films are released every single week.
Let’s list the positive aspects: It’s not a bad looking film, and the human’s non-Earth colony looks good—like a city organically growing from red rock. M. Night Shyamalan has directed some astoundingly bad films of late, but he still has an eye for composition: The crash landing is especially well-staged. Then there’s a neat scene shortly afterwards where Jaden has to push a corpse aside to keep an automated door closed.
It’s also a decent concept for a movie—one boy against the elements, in the world that’s familiar to audiences but not to the central character. Peter Suschitzky (David Cronenberg’s regular collaborator) does some fine cinematography of landscapes and forests. Also, there are a number of flashback scenes that show their lives before the crash, and they’re surprisingly warm and likable.
Will Smith is a decent actor and has undeniable presence. But—now we’re entering the failures section—his character is so grouchy and stoic that the performance doesn’t play to his strengths. This is a charming actor playing a charmless character. It’s staggering that he turned down Django Unchained for this.
Jaden is the biggest problem though. It’s a big ask to have any young teenager carry a film, and very, very few actors his age have the presence and gravitas to do so. The last example I can think of would be the young Joseph Gordon Levitt and Heath Ledger in Ten Things I Hate About You.
Jaden shows a serious lack of presence and has a strangely weak voice, and (as if that weren’t enough) he has trouble pronouncing certain letters, which makes him sound like a young Elmer Fudd.
Another issue is that the wild animals are very conspicuously computer-generated; Jaden and these beasts don’t seem to be sharing the same air.
Perhaps most damning, After Earth feels longer than its running time—and at less than two hours it’s shorter than most big budget films. Not terrible, but also not very good: To be fair to After Earth, it made me yawn, but didn’t make me puke.