Despite being written off as summer’s “first bomb” and being a “dull, lifeless movie,” After Earth is anything but – it presents sci-fi entertainment and at its core – heart. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs), After Earth is a story about a father, Cypher (Will Smith), and son, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) who crash land on Earth a millennium after humanity’s exit. Once they discover they’re the lone survivors, and Cypher is injured, Kitai must embark on a dangerous journey to signal for help.
Initially conceived by Will Smith, the story was adapted to the screen by Shyamalan and screenwriter Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli). Whereas most movies struggle to find an ending (think of Brad Pitt’s upcoming World War Z), it felt as though After Earth struggled with its beginning. Predictably, the movie opens in the future and travels back a certain amount of time (three days). From which point, until the crash landing on Earth, it’s a bombardment of cliché after cliché.
Once the action on Earth begins to unfold, this movie comes to life and the characters’ bonds to one another are strengthened – likely attributable to the Smiths’ father-son dynamic. Commendably, the makers know there aren’t very many genuine surprises left unexplored in this genre, so they took a soft-building approach that worked well to create tension. The audience knows what’s coming – there’s a countdown every single time – it’s the reveal that is sometimes startling.
In the build to these moments that may shock, or underwhelm – depending on the viewer, a subplot featuring Kitai’s sister, Senshi Raige (Zoë Kravitz), is interwoven throughout the story. The Senshi subplot matures slowly to provide insight into the relationship strain between Cypher and Kitai. The answer to whether or not they overcome this strain lies in a dramatic exchange between father and son at a pivotal and tense moment about midway through the movie.
While the concept of a deadly Earth isn’t new, After Earth, should be commended on its eco-awareness message. In the movie’s theatrical trailer, we learn that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” Ironically, without humans, nature appears to be thriving, and there’s a moment where that very statement is refuted. Is this world aggressive toward humans naturally, or only when provoked? Is Cypher’s perception based on fear of the unknown? Everything about Earth’s environment – from its wildlife to its drastic and rapid climate – is thought provoking – and is ultimately its own layer to the story.
Such weight rests on the spoken words. For After Earth, speech and diction are used as performance elements. Will Smith, for example, finds himself in unfamiliar territory while he works to maintain a deep voice and some form of accent – as if to channel James Earl Jones. His performance is as minimalist as one could expect from Smith, who really tries in this role. Unfortunately, Will (less than Jaden) isn’t consistent with whatever accent they were going for – and it’s lost in moments of emotional charge.
Jaden Smith comes off as the bigger vocal casualty, but how much of that is Jaden’s fault, versus Shyamalan’s direction? Unjunstly so, Jaden’s performance has been panned by critics, despite his excellence in the movie’s quieter moments. He has an expressive face (we can see his anticipation, longing, fear, hoping) and his body language is tailored to suit his surrounding environment. He’s cool and stealthy when he needs to be and he’s cautious and calculating when it counts. This is NOT a bad foray into acting, it’s a great starting place for Jaden to build from. The vocal aspect, for both actors, will improve with time and challenge – but for a first outing, with deepened and accented words, this isn’t bad – and if one’s looking to place blame, it should probably go to the director.
That said, there are some really beautiful moments – one in particular involves frost, another involves a river sequence. What viewers should notice is that this is at least a fairly original idea, and that contrary to its initial impression, it’s not a bad sci-fi flick. Sure, it’s not full of aliens or grand explosions or purely superficial “ah-ha” moments or plot lines – you may have to look a little deeper and connect on a different level to find what’s obviously there, it’s heart.
After Earth is rated PG-13 and runs 100 minutes.