Was M. Night Shyamalan ever a competent filmmaker? Was The Sixth Sense some kind of Jedi mind trick on all of us? We’ve watched his slow descent for years, first with disappointment, then with irritation, then with incredulous jaw-dropping awe. His films have become awful in ways that beggar the imagination. Studios once believed he could sell a picture solely on virtue of his name. With After Earth, Sony is bending over backwards to hide it. “Director? What director? This is solely a Smith family operation!”
And that’s part of the problem too. After Earth exists solely so that mega-star Will Smith could make a movie with his son Jaden, giving us both junior and senior Fresh Princes in one jiggy blow. Nobody gave the least bit of though beyond that, and thanks to Shyamalan’s excruciatingly earnest modus operandi, we can’t even get by on the charm of the cast. Smith the Elder is the biggest actor in the world for a reason; smith the Younger could get there one day. But you wouldn’t know it to watch the solemn, painfully boring dirge on display here.
The primary hook comes with the title. Humanity fled Earth 1000 years ago thanks to some vague ecological disaster. We survived on a new planet and thrived thanks to an elite corps of soldiers, the Rangers, who successfully defend humanity against an invading race of giant bugs. How? The Rangers – and specifically one of their best soldiers Cypher Raige (Smith the Elder) – learn to exude no fear, which the bugs can sense. Raige’s son Kitai (Smith the Younger) is having a hard time figuring the trick out. He gets his chance when the pair crash land on Earth, now a howling wilderness full of highly evolved death machines. Kitai has to head out in search of a rescue beacon with the injured Cypher calling the shots.
The screenplay fills it with the expected clichés of father-son drama. The lad looks to make his father proud while chafing against the perception that he’s not up for the task. The older man has to reconcile guilt at the loss of a second child, slain by the aliens while he was elsewhere. Shyamalan dutifully smothers all inherent drama or interest, leaving us with two of the year’s most boring characters sucking the life out of the screen. Again, considering the sheer charisma of these actors, that takes some doing.
How? After Earth is remarkably systematic in its approach. For starters, it spends a lot of thought and construction on how this future world works, but no time at all on why it would interest us. To that, add Shyamalan’s usual spate of ridiculous po-faced dialogue, spoken with a kind of accentless accent to make us marvel at how much life has changed in a thousand years. It wants to be endlessly fascinating. It isn’t. At all.
Follow that up with the supremely dull landscape that Smith Jr. treks through, populated by mutated versions of Terran animals all set to gobble him up. Except when they don’t, for reasons we can’t understand because the script doesn’t know either. Return of the Jedi’s redwood forests perform a glum curtain call, populated by borderline competent CGI beasts that barely make any ecological sense. The production design follows to coherent theme, and while it looks good piecemeal, it holds no innate unity at all. We’re supposed to find it interesting because it’s Earth. Give the planet another name and no one in the world would pay any attention to it. Though a scant 100 minutes long, After Earth feels longer and slower than your average PBS pledge drive, and with fewer laughs to boot.
That, in the end, may be the most damning aspect of this movie. Someone forgot to bring the fun to the party… or if not the fun, then any viable reason why we’d want to invest our time and energy into it. We care not a whit about what (or who) we’re seeing, turned off by a self-absorbed filmmaker who lost the ability to acknowledge the paying audience long ago. This feels like his last shot, armed with a high wattage star who hand-picked him to helm this very personal project, only to see it all fall apart. Everyone involved shares in the responsibility, though as always, the audience pays the price. After Earth feels like a third-tier video game played by your grandmother… although she, at least, wouldn’t have the audacity to charge you for the experience.