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After Earth (2013)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan

review by Andrew Darlington

There are many reasons to dislike this film, not least because it's so self-evidently a Will Smith vanity project designed to promote the career of his son, Jaden. Will himself - the one-time Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air is a likeable actor with considerable talent for comic roles, such as the superhero romp Hancock (2008), or the alien-busting Men In Black franchise (1997, 2002, and 2012), as well as such straight SF thrillers as the excellent I, Robot (2004). His stand-out lead in I Am Legend (2007) - the third screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's zombie novel - sees him virtually single-handed for the movie's first half, acting convincingly with just his dog for support. It demonstrates genuine dramatic presence.

Yet such is his box-office bank-ability that he's used his tenuous rapper credentials, and clubbable industry links, to launch the career of daughter Willow Smith - born in October 2000, with irritating pop-rap teen-electro hit Whip My Hair. She also, of course, had a minor role in I Am Legend. Next, Will switched his attention to son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith - born 8th July 1998. They'd already rehearsed their onscreen father-and-son act in The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006), in a trial run for joint-credits. And Jaden had been there in the 2008 movie remake The Day The Earth Stood Still, but if After Earth is the family project designed to establish Jaden's own star status, then it fails miserably.

Whatever screen-gene propelled the father's rise to prominence, is glaringly absent in his charisma-free son, despite the good-natured parental coaching evident in the A Father's Legacy DVD bonus-feature. The original storyline - inevitably, was contrived by Will, and developed by his own Overbrook production company. Both Will and wife Jada Pinkett Smith - mother of Willow and Jaden, get producer credits, with M. Night Shyamalan drafted in to add his skilled professional expertise.

The idea that an environmentally devastated Earth has led to a human exodus to another world - in this case, Nova Prime, is hardly original. With the home world quarantined and off-limits, the human ranger corps finds itself at war with implacable alien S'krell predators, who use bioengineered Ursa's who hunt by 'sensing' fear. General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), as the man who devised the fight-back 'ghosting' technique, is so indoctrinated in militarily procedures that he's rigidly uptight and incapable of expressing normal human emotions.

As essentially a (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding critic, I confess to a certain built-in resistance to the respectful portrayal of militaristic hierarchies in movies, except when used for satiric purposes - such as in the original Starship Troopers (1997), which some of the early Ursa battle-sequences resemble. But here, the father-son bond is unbridgeably fractured by son Kitai's (Jaden Smith) feelings of inadequacy, overshadowed by his heroic father - a situation maybe uncomfortably close to reflecting their real-life status, and compounded by Kitai's sense of guilt over the death of older sister Senshi (Zoe Kravitz) in an Ursa attack.

Meanwhile, Kitai's failure to qualify for induction into the rangers is seen as further evidence of Cypher's disappointment in his son, setting up the issues to be resolved during a final voyage they undertake together before Cypher's retirement. Predictably there's an asteroid storm that forces them down to find refuge on what turns out to be the forbidden Earth. Cypher is injured, and the ship ripped in two during atmospheric entry, so Kitai must undertake a hazardous 100k journey on foot to reach the remote tail-section in order to set up a rescue beacon. This is how the son will prove his worth, how his courage and endurance will be tested, and from which he'll emerge vindicated.

And yes, this post-cataclysm Earth is dangerous; there are digitally-evolved baboons, venomous leeches, giant condors, and sabre-toothed tigers. There is low-level oxygen which means they must take oxy-supplement capsules in order to survive. And there are extreme night-time temperature-drops that leave freezing sub-zero conditions. But none of this seems insurmountable. There are peoples today existing perfectly well in equally extreme climates. Even Jason Rothenberg's American TV series The 100 - based on the Kass Morgan books, in which survivors living in a threatened orbital habitat are forced to return to a post-apocalyptic Earth, creates a very real sense of planetary danger that is entirely lacking in After Earth. Indeed, there's an entire subgenre of dystopian future-Earths, all of which create a greater sense of menace than this movie does, as Kitai - with his expressive range limited to pained distress and confused hurt, endures the worst that this world can throw at him in what, for the most part, is fairly idyllic forest shot on locations in Costa Rica, and Eureka, California.

There's an intended metaphor thread concerning Moby Dick - "a real book from a museum," to add cultural subtext, with a parting glimpse of oceanic whales to suggest that the damaged Earth is healing and renewing itself. This is after an add-on sequence in which Kitai reaches the wrecked tail-section, only to discover it's necessary for him to climb a nearby volcano to achieve sufficient elevation for the beacon to work, while menaced by an escaped Ursa that was held captive in the ship's hold. Through flashbacks to Senshi's death and through the story of his father's example, he finally manages to mask his fear-pheromones to achieve the state of 'ghosting', and kills the monster in a fierce mountain-top confrontation.

Until, in a final reconciliation on the rescue ship, daddy Cypher struggles to overcome his rigid self-control, but is only capable of expressing his estranged paternal love by creakily lurching to his feet to give son Kitai a tight military salute, an echo signalled by an earlier incident in which an amputee veteran had saluted Cypher. What is obviously intended to be a moment of touching pathos, instead comes across laugh-out-loud comically absurd. There are many reasons to dislike this film. This is another of them.

DVD bonus featurettes include: A Father's Legacy, 1,000 Years In 300 Seconds, and The Nature Of The Future.

After Earth

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