Big star vanity projects rarely seem to turn out well. Combine a major name with a director not renowned for his modesty and you have a recipe for a heftily out-of-touch piece of filmmaking. Given the critical mauling of After Earth, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t become the object of ridicule through obvious bad punnery; After Birth would be a suitably chastening retitling. But for all that this isn’t a terribly good film, it’s not terribly terrible either. Sure, the script suffers from holes you could pilot a spaceship through, the dialogue is frequently disastrous, the performances aren’t up to much, and the special effects lack something special. But for all that, the movie is reasonably entertaining.
I put that mostly down to M Night Shyamalan. However, lurching his fall from grace may have been over the last five or six years (since his vanity-massaging bomb Lady in the Water, so closer to seven), he remains a talented director. It’s his writing that has repeatedly let him down. The diminishing returns of his slow-burn directing style and plot-twist-first approach to writing resulted in his abandoning them altogether after The Village; even he had to recognise the tide was turning against him. But he did so in a backhanded way, pointedly criticising his critics in Lady in the Water. Which in turn was even more lambasted than The Village.
He clawed back a commercial reprieve with The Happening, but it was his most pilloried picture yet. My reaction to it was not dissimilar to that of After Earth; I kind of enjoyed it despite itself. Despite Mark Wahlberg’s career-low, and despite the wonderful scene where our protagonists attempt to outrun the wind. Razzie nominations beckoned, as they no doubt will for After Earth (I suspect this time it’s a shoe-in to win a couple too). Since then, the director has been on something of a back foot. No one was especially kind about The Last Airbender, but it did reasonably well at the box office and as an adaptation (by the director, of course) he seemed to escape the kind of brickbats reserved for his own creations. Something of that is also at play with After Earth. He takes a screenplay credit (with The Book of Eli’s Gary Whitta) but is shielded from the worst of the blame through his star’s presiding involvement. It was Smith who came up with the story, Smith who conceived it as a vehicle for Smith Jr, and Smith who left his natural charm at home in his supporting turn.
Shyamalan probably wasn’t the best choice to give the script a good seeing to, of course. The man who came up with The Happening was unlikely to discern deficiencies of logic in the basic concept. When I reviewed Elysium, I omitted to mention After Earth amongst the wave of original summer sci-fi releases. After Earth eclipses that movie for conceptual incoherence, and it comes up very short when compared to the year’s other abandoned Earth picture, Oblivion. The most obvious question, one that hits you in the face no matter how much of an easy ride you’re willing to give the picture in other departments, is how life on Earth can evolve to become hostile towards a species that no longer exists there. Even if the premise were intended to mock the concept of evolution (stranger things have happened), it’s the makers who end up with egg on their faces. Perhaps the creatures just collectively decided on an antagonistic disposition towards humankind. They’re obviously a discerning hive of transformed life, as the giant condor that starts out trying to kill young Jaiden decides to save him (ostensibly because Jaden fended off saber cats attempting to eat the condor’s young, but unless the condor has highly evolved faculties, all it’s going to understand is that its babies are dead and Smith Jr is standing over them).
It’s also a bit of a problem that, given the Earth is quarantined because it is so dangerous, it doesn’t really seem all that hostile. Jaden spends most of his journey in relative safety. Sure, there are some savage leeches, some big birds and big baboons and big cats, it’s difficult to breathe and it gets cold at night, but the only really malign influence is the one they bring with them. I also don’t think this being a kids’ film (albeit a fairly bloody one; wounded Will isn’t a nice sight) excuses the slipshod scenario that has been devised. The Earth was evacuated; so, everyone left? Really? That just seems like nonsense. Indeed, I was expecting Jaden to run into some plot-twist descendants of those who opted to stay behind, rather than receiving comfort from a kindly condor.
As is de rigueur with future vision movies, an introductory sprawl was considered necessary to inform the viewer where we are and what is going on. This is delivered by Kitai Raige (one Jaden Smith), and the lacklustre vocal performance, combined with an extremely underpowered narrative, and design work, is a taster of what’s in store. Humanity has settled on Nova Prime but fallen foul of another race, which set the Ursas on them; creatures that smell fear. Kitai’s dad, Cypher Raige (I know, WTF?) discovers a method of being free from fear, called “ghosting”, through which the “blinded” Ursas can be beaten. So Cypher is perhaps the least subtle possible personification of the father who is impossible to live up to. It doesn’t help that Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death, and his dad blames him for it too. You get where all these clichés are going, right? That’s why they call them clichés. When their spaceship crashes on Earth (fans of the number 23 will note that the craft is prominently numbered H-230) and Cypher is incapacitated, Kitai must overcome his fear (subtext is for wimps when such themes are so bluntly foregrounded), making a journey across hazardous terrain to activate a distress beacon. And so, it will become a journey of discovery for the two Raiges.
The Ursas are your traditional oversized alien bugs, and testify to the lack of originality on display here. Straight out of Starship Troopers, there’s even some reportage where we see Smith’s Cypher Raige on a bug-stomping rampage; it desperately needed Paul Verhoeven to add some purposeful funnies (remember the censored news item in that movie, when the science division sticks a probe up a bug where the sun doesn’t shine?) This is a horrifically sombre movie (the cheerupwillsmith.com thing is entirely understandable), and its lack of self-awareness lends it to ridicule.
As far the “Fear is not real” message, who knows? Maybe Will has been spending too much time with his mate the Cruiser. Maybe the picture testifies to his much-rumoured sympathies towards Scientology (there are all sorts of offbeat theories concerning Smith’s beliefs and predilections, but isn’t that a malaise of most celebrities?) Certainly, it’s credentials as a flop bearing its message loud-and-proud beckon comparisons with John Travolta’s adaptation of the L. Ron Hubbard sci-fi Battlefield Earth. I’m not sure something as general as this fairly glib self-empowerment yarn lends itself to an entire agenda, however. One might draw parallels between the unchallenged position of the movie that martial discipline is a positive influence on the developing young mind (whatever disagreements crop up along the way) and the control structure of the Church of Big Ron, but the movie seems most vested in age-old notions of rites of passage and what it means to become a man. However corny and unpalatable, when Cypher rises to salute his son, so signalling that he is now deserving of ranger status, it’s about as traditional an arc as they come in story terms.
Nevertheless, there’s something a little unsettling about putting your fourteen-year-old son through intensive training in order to make him a tip-top physical specimen. It’s not as if Will wasn’t a scrawny streak of piss until the late-90s. It suggests scarily focussed parenting of the sort they make precautionary Lifetime movies about… There’s an obvious reading here that Will is Cypher Raige and he knows that young Jaden can never live up to his father’s legacy. One might suggest that Will’s absenteeism from the big screen, ostensibly for family reasons, is to give his son a push start; “You can never eclipse the old man, but if I indulge in enough vanity-transference perhaps I can manufacture a piece of stardom for you”. It seems curiously thick-headed of Smith to assume that such blatant nepotism can end well. It would be all well and good if Jaden was the next Fresh Prince, and his career evolved naturally, but what Smith is doing is the worst kind of handicapping. In one swift move, audiences have learnt to resent his son.
The biggest problem is that Jaden is no chip off the old block in the charisma stakes (Kitai’s intuitive survival suit is infinitely more interesting than he is). I don’t think his performance is as bad as has been made out, certainly not so the affair became an unintentional comedy. And the part tailored for him isn’t exactly a showcase for anyone’s natural exuberance; with that in mind I’m willing to cut him some slack. The making of featurettes show a quick repartee with his old man, so maybe he’s just really concentrating on being a mopey brat. Either way, he’s not helping the movie. But neither is dad, reining in everything that defines him as a star. Yes, he’s proved he can play a curmudgeon but no one is going to be congratulating him for it.
So it comes back to what works, and that’s entirely down to Shyamalan’s chops calling the shots. He keeps up the pace throughout a (relatively) lean running time, and doesn’t let the ropey effects, deadening dialogue and unbecoming performances kill the engine. I doubt that we’ll ever see him working entirely from another’s script, which is more the pity. As for Jaden, perhaps After Earth’s reception will have him thinking about his next move career-wise. After all, he’s fifteen. Time to make some big decisions. Not since Sofia Coppola has the hubris of a parent gone so punished. Maybe it’s worth his considering a career in directing.