At least a thousand years or so in the future, all of humanity will have left the planet and settled on an area outside of our Solar System; that’s according to the setup in the new sci-fi thriller with Will Smith called After Earth.
Without humanity around to mess things up, animals and creatures on Earth have multiplied and, in some cases, even evolved. Forests and wooded areas have grown. The planet looks considerably lush. But it’s also a place of danger for anyone unlucky enough to crash land with no way of getting off, unless rescued from the outside. That’s exactly what happens to General Raige (Will Smith) and his son, Kitai (Smith’s real life son, Jaden).
Young Kitai is an outstanding military student with the potential for a great future, but his over-enthusiasm for field work has stopped him from graduating to the next level in the Ranger Corp. While academically bright, the Corps considers Kitai not yet ready. “He doesn’t need a commanding officer,” his mother insists in a confrontation with dad, “He needs a father.”
So, dad takes son on a peacekeeping mission for the experience, but an asteroid field damages the ship, sending it crashing to Earth’s surface. With two broken legs, the father is unable to leave the confines of the heavily damaged craft. It’s up to the boy to venture out onto the dangerous planet, retrieve an emergency beacon and signal for help.
The idea for the film came from Will Smith himself who thought of a story revolving around a car crash where the son had to go out for help. Somehow, the idea expanded into sci-fi territory with a much broader setting for conflict and danger. Director M.Night Shyamalan came on board, co-wrote part of the script, locations were found, and filming commenced. The end result has some considerable weight. The action, when it comes, is taught, exciting, and well executed, and the relationship between father and son feels not surprisingly real.
There is the problem of likeability, however. Will Smith’s father is a stern disciplinarian. The mother’s criticism that he acts more like a C.O. than a father is perfectly illustrated after the son asks the father if he can go to his room. “Denied!” shouts the father as if talking to an insubordinate soldier, then orders, “Sit down!” The son himself is a somewhat moody, humorless character who obviously wants to do well in his father’s eyes, but it’s this total lack of warmth throughout that stops us from liking either of them. Admittedly, the whole idea is that eventually the son will prove his worth in front of his father, finally making the father proud – that’s hardly a giveaway; everything in the story points to that direction – but it’s hard to root for a character if you don’t feel particularly connected.
Some of that may have to do with Jaden Smith. He’s a talented boy, and with a couple of films under his belt he has already shown himself to be someone who’ll have a future on the screen – his famous parents will see to that – but he continues to be the sour faced kid as he was in The Karate Kid remake; the perpetual moody teenager. Occasionally an audience needs to see a little more emotional range, something to warm to, an occasional moment of lightness. Without it, in a life or death situation like this, you’re merely watching someone survive without actually cheering them on.
Director Shyamalan’s unrushed style is evident here – situations are well established, conversations and exchanges are thoughtfully presented without the need for unnecessary visual flourishes – plus his unwanted trademark expectation of the need to deliver a twist ending every time has finally all but gone. Instead we have a thoughtful project with well choreographed action and good effects that does its best to engage, and mostly succeeds. If only you could feel something deeper for the two leads other than the basic hope that they’ll survive, After Earth might have become something greater.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)