M. Night Shyamalan. Three words that are enough to make even the most adventurous film viewer run headfirst into a wall with the intention of self-inflicted trauma. It is difficult to remember that the director was once the darling of the industry. If only Haley Joel Osment could have seen the dud projects along with the dead people, we might have been spared Shyamalan’s extended filmography. Unfortunately, that is not the case and After Earth exists to torment us.
The story is set in the distant future, humans have polluted the Earth so badly that they’ve had to abandon it and set up a colony on a planet called Nova Prime. Unnamed aliens decide this is unacceptable and start breeding creatures called Ursas to hunt down the human race. Ursas can sense fear pheromones, which helps them overcome being blind and deaf (just roll with it). As a response to this threat, humans set up a Space Ranger Corps, led by Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a man able to ‘ghost’ by hiding his fears and becoming invisible to the Ursas.
This history is recounted by his son, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), who is introduced as a failed candidate for the Rangers. As any disapproving parent would then do, Cypher takes his inexperienced and annoying offspring on a mission to transport an Ursa through space. As luck would have it, their ship encounters an asteroid field and crashes on Earth with the two Raiges being the only survivors. With Cypher seriously injured, Kitai must trek thousands of miles to reach the damaged tail section of their ship and launch an emergency flair. And, before you ask, there is no plot twist at the end.
After Earth is flawed on a multitude of levels, starting with its convoluted story. There is an overuse of technical and futuristic jargon but while some of the less important things are explained in excruciating detail – such as the interior design of the spaceship – more pertinent plot points are not even addressed – like who the Ursa-breeding aliens were in the first place and why they were hunting humans. The screenplay relies heavily on exposition with one painful example being Cypher recounting for a full fifteen minutes how he learned to ‘ghost’ while staring blankly at the screen. It is not necessarily wrong to use direct narration but with clear access to CGI, it would have been nice to have seen a flashback too. Think of it as The Happening but with Mark Wahlberg’s character telling a story of running away from trees instead of actually running away from trees.
The acting is absolutely abysmal. Cypher and Kitai could have been played by mannequins for all the emotional depth brought forward by Will and Jaden Smith. Gone is the cocky exuberance shown by father and son in their previous roles, like Men in Black and The Karate Kid. They blatantly showed up only to cash in their cheques. Then again, Smith Sr. is said to have come up with the story in the first place along with producing it with his wife, so perhaps he was actually passionate about the project. Which is a terrifying thought. Sophie Okenedo and Zoe Kravitz make fleeting appearances and can almost be called sincere if it weren’t for the horrendous dialogue they have to spout.
On a technical side, the visuals are decent enough but in this day and age, that is hardly a compliment. The CGI animals and aliens look fine but the action is so absurd that it is hard to focus on how menacing they look. The litany of head-scratchers is too long to write down, but when a fifteen-year-old is thrashed like Loki was by the Hulk but can still stand up, brush off a veritable pool of blood and kill a massive monstrosity – sadly, not the film – you know something is not quite right with the filmmakers’ heads.
M. Night Shyamalan set the bar so low with his previous projects that it was touching the ground. With After Earth, he and his team dig six feet underground just so they can go even lower. Having already reviewed two horrendous films earlier this year, Midnight’s Children and Red Dawn, rating After Earth higher than those would be an insult – 0 stars.