Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith
Shyamalan followed up his most hated film to date, The Last Airbender with the sci-fi film After Earth. At the moment, After Earth is his second worst received film, ever. Common criticisms of the film are about the nepotism of Jaden Smith’s casting, poor writing and underwhelming direction from Shyamalan. There has also been a fair few critics who have focused on scientology themes running throughout the film, which is just complete nonsense.
The themes tackled by After Earth involve; a father/son relationship, coming of age, climate change, fear and survivor’s guilt. If there is anything in After Earth that makes it a scientologist film, then it is also evident in pretty much every film ever, especially sci-fi, action or fantasy. It feels like people are so desperate to criticise Shyamalan that they will stretch, or just plain make up, elements to make their point.
Is After Earth a great film? No, however it is enjoyable, entertaining and gripping in a way that most action films dream of being. The biggest negative is that the central thread is very reliant on an overused cliché. This is a film that above all else is about a father/son relationship. How many times has a writer written the words ‘he doesn’t need a…, he need’s a father’, when a mother is talking to her partner about their son. It’s one of the biggest tropes going and that is how After Earth starts. Thankfully once the action is underway the exploration of the relationship between Kitai (Jaden Smith, The Karate Kid) and Cypher (Will Smith, Independence Day) is interesting and compelling.
Cypher has mastered ghosting, where he shows no fear, which is the only way to get close and kill the aliens that are hellbent on destroying humans across the universe. Kitai is a cadet in training, wanting to follow his father’s footsteps and learn to become a ranger as well. Their relationship, helped massively by the real life relationship between the two actors, feels real and natural. The relationship gives the film a much needed emotional hook.
Their performances don’t always match that, though. Will Smith, who shows no fear, often comes across as stilted and emotionless, as if without fear we don’t have any emotions. Jaden Smith also struggles in to bring charisma and charm that his father brings to a film. Both are weighed down by some clunky dialogue. At its core, this is essentially Jaden Smith’s film, he is the main character and as the audience we don’t really leave his side. While he gives a decent performance, this is undermined by legacy that his dad has.
Will Smith, when he isn’t being emotionless, is great on screen. He is a great actor and it’s showing here. After Earth was a pet project for him. He came up with the premise and fleshed it out with Gary Whitta. Shyamalan was then brought on as director and co-screen writer with Whitta. Since he started the project it’s no surprise that Will Smith gives it his all and through a very limited roll, he leaves an impression.
The story focuses on Kitai and Cypher, who crash land on Earth one thousand years in the future, with Kitai having to make a 100KM trip to get a beacon for help. It’s well paced and compelling. The film flies by, without any boring moments. There are some nice tense sequences where Kitai meets the hostile inhabitants of the future Earth. The CGI of those inhabitants isn’t the best, there is a lot better out there, but it does the job and isn’t that distracting.
Like some of Shyamalan’s other work there is an under-current theme of climate change in After Earth. Humans are forced to leave the planet as its become inhospitable. Like The Happening and The Village there is a sense that humans are very capable of destroying the world in one way of another. It’s a very relevant theme that runs through Shyamalan’s work.
After Earth is not a contender for the best sci-fi film of the last decade. It’s not Shyamalan’s best film, but it is enjoyable and entertaining. In no way is this as bad as critics made out at the time it was first released and it’s a shame that this would have put off people from seeing it. After Earth is a fast paced thrilling sci-fi film that works best as something to switch your mind off to and enjoy.