From the moment Jaden Smith, 15, opens his mouth to speak in the new science-fiction thriller After Earth, the movie’s trajectory is laid bare. Smith’s accent is belabored and indecipherable, his demeanor stiff and rehearsed, his dialogue stilted and portentous. It’s a combination of immaturity, overconfidence and misplaced Hollywood privilege.
In that respect, the movie lives up to expectations. The best science-fiction is provocative and propulsive. After Earth is inert and impenetrable. Gary Whitta and director M. Night Shyamalan’s script doesn’t even try to hide its contrivances. The paper-thin plot lurches listlessly from one checkpoint to another, all hopes of spontaneity and creativity dashed in the placid opening minutes. Even Will Smith, an effortless pleasure in so many of his previous movies, grated on my nerves here. Smith conceived of this movie as a coming-out vehicle for his son as a burgeoning action star. What he’s accomplished instead is closer to an unfortunate case of career suicide.
If you’re looking for a laugh at the multiplex this summer, stroll past the theater projecting The Hangover Part III and look no further than this movie’s exposition, which introduces a grown man named Cypher Raige (Will Smith). Look at that name again. Cypher Raige. OK, now pick yourself up off the floor and let’s get on with this review.
Actually, let’s pause again. Are you sitting down? Jaden’s character is Kitai Raige. Really let that sink in.
Moving on. Sometime in the near future, an environmental cataclysm renders Earth uninhabitable for humanity. Luckily, humanity quickly finds a replacement on a beautiful planet called Nova Prime. Cypher Raige is the leader of the Ranger Corps, a peacekeeping organization dedicated to promoting peaceful interactions with alien races on other planets. As the movie opens, Kitai has just learned that he has the skills but lacks the emotional maturity necessary to join the Rangers.
Then Kitai mopes about it for a while, and his father invites him to come on his next mission. Still mopey, Kitai agrees. On the voyage, Kitai struggles to interact with his father, who refuses to bat an eye upon hearing that his son is currently engrossed in Moby Dick. And why would he? Kitai is a whiny brat. (My friend Christine informs me that he’s also very attractive. I’ll take her word for it.)
Uh-oh. Beware the asteroid storm! Somehow the ship stumbles upon an unforeseen catastrophe that sends them catapulting down to an unknown planet. As per the movie’s title, Cypher and Kitai are the sole survivors of the crash, left to fend for themselves on Earth. With two broken legs and a sourpuss, Cypher orders his son to traverse the devastated planet to active an emergency beacon conveniently located far, far away from the rest of the ship. Kitai’s task? Retrieve the beacon, prove himself to his father, master his own fear.
So far so good? Not really, but the worst is yet to come. Up until the point, the movie is stoic and silly but still intriguing. Once Kitai sets off on his “adventures,” though, all bets are off. A painfully clunky narrative contrivance allows Cypher to see his son’s every move from the confines of the ship. From the minute Kitai leaves, his fate is already sealed. Every obstacle that Kitai encounters, from mutant baboons (my friend Lindsey particularly “enjoyed” that one) to killer oxygen levels and perilous cliff faces, Cypher has already built in a solution. All Kitai has to do is hit his marks.
This video-game setup makes for monumentally dull viewing. Oh no! we wonder. However will Jaden Smith pull himself out of this mess? Oh wait, our conscience reminds us. Cypher’s got it covered. Even later, when Kitai brazenly disobeys his father’s orders and severs communications, Cypher’s advice echoes in his son’s head, helpfully audible for the audience in case we forgot what Cypher had told him just minutes of screentime earlier.
It’s hard not to view this movie as an attempt at an elaborate metaphor for Will Smith’s current position in the movie star universe. (As he’s said in interviews, Will Smith came up with the idea for the story.) He’s getting older and public favor is turning against him. It’s high time he find a successor, and he seems to feel he’s found one in his son. How odd, then, that he would hook Jaden up with a script as witless and pedestrian as this one. In movies like Men in Black, Independence Day and I, Robot, the Fresh Prince has married clever high-concept material with his trademark wit and endless charisma. Here, both he and his son are as stiff as cardboard. “My suit just turned black!” Jaden remarks at one point. “I like it but I think it means something’s wrong.” Not a great line, but delivered with the right inflection, amusing. Not so here.
And it’s not as if Will Smith lacks experience in carrying a movie singlehandedly: his performance opposite a dog and an empty metropolis in I Am Legend is as compelling as anything I’ve seen him do. He relied on his face and eyes to convey the subtext that sounds leaden when delivered as dialogue, but Jaden’s face is a blank slate. I don’t begrudge Jaden for being a bad actor in his tender teenage years, but his father places more pressure on him than he can handle.
How far M. Night Shyamalan has fallen since his debut with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, a thriller rife with complicated emotions and nuanced performances amid crazy twists and fantastical ideas. The biggest disappointment with After Earth is not its stilted dialogue, uninspired story or cheesy visuals. It’s an utter lack of personality, something Will Smith’s family has in spades. At least, they did once. This movie may have permanently robbed them of it.
“That sucked,” Kitai remarks about a particularly harrowing development midway through the movie.
“That is correct,” his father grunts. The movie’s most accurate line.