The Smith family takes charge of this unspectacular sci-fi romp
Director: M. Night Shyamalan; Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glen Morshower; Running time: 100 minutes; Certification: 12A
In a future where humanity has moved to new galaxies, stern Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (real life son Jaden) crash-land on Earth, previously evacuated by humanity as it began to grow uninhabitable, and where where all other life has evolved to give humans a really bad day.
“From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as it once did, so it’s no surprise his name was left out of all the trailers and promotional activity, and also why, in all honesty, I had no idea he had directed After Earth until the day before I saw it. Back in his glory days of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, when his twists were actually surprising and his ideas were original, one would never have imagined he would fall so low as the mind-numbing silliness of The Happening. Yet it happened (geddit?). Suffice it to say, my expectations were way down ahead of his latest, Smith family-led vehicle, both from witnessing his decline first-hand and from the astringent reviews from the critics.
Despite the scale of the premise, there’s really very little going on in the narrative. Father and son crash-land, son goes to find a beacon to emit a distress signal, father stays in the ship to guide him. It all seems to be over too quickly, with not enough time spent on the lavish future sets and space travel sequences that the budget has so obviously spent a lot on, or the relationship between Raige and Kitai, which only feels touched on and is surprisingly hollow considering the real life bond between the two. Jaden is the main character, but it’s his old man who provides the cement, without which the film would crumble and fall. He isn’t at his best and he isn’t given enough to do, but he still holds everything together. I appreciate that they’re trying to give Jaden his time in the sun – a place in which his father has spent so much time – but the hard truth is he just isn’t very good. Maybe he’ll grow and improve with age, but as of now, in a film with the two of them, I want to see more of Will.
There are gripping sequences dotted throughout, like the eagle chase and the final ‘fight’, and they are just about enough to keep you interested, but they’re never anything more than that. There’s never a moment that really invests you in the story or characters. Even when the flashbacks, of which there are too many, try desperately to force sympathy, you’ll find it hard to muster any. Thankfully, though, and I really do mean thankfully, Shyamalan didn’t try to cram in some stupid twist for the sake of it. I spent the whole film worrying about it, but in the end it never came, and I was strangely impressed by that. Shyamalan became so obsessed with his own twists that he seemed to stick them wherever he could, in places they didn’t belong, but he looks like he might finally be over it.
It’s not completely terrible, it’s just incredibly unremarkable, and boring, and just so ordinary when you compare it to Shyamalan’s fantastic earlier work. One just has to wonder if we’ll ever see that again.