When I was a pre-teen, I discovered written science fiction. I devoured “Rocket Ship Galileo”, “Space Cadet” and “Red Planet” by Robert Heinlein as well as “Ender’s Game” and others by Orson Scott Card, just to name a few. These novels all had a similar premise: The adults were somehow incapacitated or unsuited to a particular mission, and the teenagers had to be called on to save the day. It was escapist Young Adult fiction before YA fiction was even an industry term. So forty-five minutes into M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, After Earth, I was in very familiar territory and waiting patiently for something unexpected (interesting?) to happen.
Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is the leader of the Rangers, a military force that fights the extraterrestrial, insect-like enemy of humankind known as the Ursa. His son, Katai (Jaden Smith) hopes to follow in his legendary footsteps and become a Ranger, though he has just been denied membership in the revered body of warriors after failing his most recent field tests.
When Cypher is called away on an interstellar mission, his wife convinces him to take Katai with him for a little bonding time. “Go make some memories,” she says. (Evidently our current vernacular is alive and well thousands of years from now.) Cypher agrees. En route to their destination, their ship is damaged by an asteroid storm and crash lands on a beautiful, but dangerous, world known as …. Earth – the same planet that was destroyed hundreds of years ago, but has now been restored to its Garden of Eden-like origins.
With both of his legs broken and unable to leave the ship, Cypher tasks Katai to travel forty-five miles through inhospitable terrain populated with lethal creatures to retrieve the homing beacon/distress signal device that is housed in the tail of their downed aircraft. Who knew that we’d learn how to travel faster than the speed of light and would only put one homing beacon in our spaceships? Sounds like a factory recall is in order.
The cynic in me can’t help thinking about the real world parallels to the story unfolding on the screen. A famous father is looking to cut back on his demanding work responsibilities and would love to pass the torch to his son who may not be ready for rigors of his new profession. Hmmmm. And it stars a famous father hoping to jumpstart his son’s career in motion pictures? This doesn’t mean the movie couldn’t have still been enjoyable, but the audience does (or should) feel the Hollywood manipulation at work here. Give us a new action star, please. Our studio needs another successful film franchise, Mr. Smith.
Confined to a chair or a gurney, Will Smith is little more than a voice on the communication channel in After Earth. He spends the entire film looking stern or injured. Maybe he wanted an underwritten, low-key part so that Jaden could shine as the film’s star. Unfortunately, he does not. The young man isn’t a horrible actor by any means, but he doesn’t have the personality or charisma to carry the majority of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. He is a lightweight, physically and as a screen presence. Mostly he just whines and complains like any teenager stranded on a hostile planet would.
And poor, poor M. Night Shyamalan. He burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, one of the most original thrillers I’ve ever seen, and aside from a brief uptick with Signs in 2002, he has been in a creative freefall ever since. In After Earth, he is simply a non-entity. The film has no visual stamp on it, no directorial signature. The camera shots are as plain vanilla as possible. He’s like the cinematic equivalent of a “Yes Man”. It’s Will Smith’s project, and Shyamalan just stays out of his way and lets Smith execute the concept at hand as he sees fit.
And lastly, After Earth lacks the one thing that all science fiction films require: originality. Everything in this film has been done before and done better. I was watching this same premise every weekend of my childhood on Lost in Space as Will Robinson stumbled through the dangers of a low budget Los Angeles soundstage trying to rescue his family and Dr. Smith. Even the science fiction elements of the film are mostly irrelevant to the plot. A plane crash in modern-day Costa Rica could’ve set up the same dramatic scenario.
I keep trying to escape the feeling that After Earth wasn’t conceived as a motion picture so much as it was manufactured as a product. Ranger action figures, video games, and Halloween costumes were dancing in executives’ head. You can practically hear the pitch: “Let’s not make a hard sci-fi film for adults because that cuts out the kids, but if we market it as a kid’s film, the geeks and sci-fi nerds of the world won’t go. So, let’s make some combination of the two in an effort to appeal to the biggest audience possible.” It’s a film made by committees and test audiences, and it shows.
Here’s hoping Guillermo del Toro knows how to make a science fiction film for a mass audience. Maybe Pacific Rim will wash this bad taste out of my mouth.
5 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.