Sure, I like Will Smith. I do. Still, I can’t say I am liking his choice of films as of late. Sure, the upcoming “Winter Tale” has a ton of fire power to it, but purportedly, Mr. Smith turned down the role of Django because he felt the role wasn’t a lead. Then there’s that rumored remake of “The Wild Bunch” that has the Peckinpah faithful hearing fingernails on the chalkboard. Now comes this ill-advised project with M. Night Shyamalan, who’s made exactly one quality film, a few intriguing follow ups and done a disastrous slide ever since.
If you’re wondering why the actor, who holds an obvious penchant for sci-fi, would jump into water with a man on his last breath, the answer is likely “his son.” “After Earth” is not a Will Smith movie but a Jaden Smith movie. The young thespian held his own with Dad in the underrated and wholly affecting, pull-yourself-up drama, “The Pursuit of Happyness” and was effective in “The Karate Kid” reboot; but this film ? It’s Jaden’s coming out party, a big screen bar mitzvah for Papa Smith to declare to the world, “My son is an actor.”
Well not so fast Will.
Jump ahead one thousand years. Man no longer lives on Earth but some far away planet where the bane of his existence is a beast called the Ursa. Sounds like a bear, but it’s a giant hell-bender salamander with pincers and an “Alien” appetite for humans. They’re blind, but can easily pick off peeps because of fear pheromones. Will and Jaden fittingly play father and son. Dad is Cypher Raige — highly regarded Zen general who has all the stoicism and success of Phil Jackson while junior checks in as Kitai, a cadet in dad’s army.
The pair along with a legion of military personnel set off on a training mission aboard a ship carrying a cocooned Ursa in its hold. Why is scantily explained, but then again not much makes sense 1K years into the future. They have warp drive space ships but fight with double bladed pole arms that retract crisply like a light saber — yet they wield no cool semi-automatics or laser blasters? Or how about the man who lost a leg in a battle with an Ursa and is confined to a wheelchair–no bionics or even a blade runner?
Such questions abound throughout and become increasingly aggravated by the stiff direction, hokey futuristic sets, inert dialogue and equally unimpressive acting. Yes, Will too.
In any case, after a meteor storm, the ship crashes and Cypher and Kitai are the only two who survive–well the Ursa too. Cypher’s legs are broken, so he must sit in the fuselage while Kitai treks four days to get to a critical communication module that landed a hundred clicks away as the ship broke apart on entry.
Oh yeah, the planet they landed on is Earth. It’s not really explained why, but we no longer live on Earth, it’s become a bit of a hell hole even though it looks lush, verdant and inviting. Somehow, somewhere along the line Mother Nature got angry (for us mucking up the scenery and souring the seas?) and kicked our ass, mutating giant eagles and swarms of ravenous man sized baboons; and the temperature sways between tropical and sub-freezing each day, even though the flowers bloom and the buffalo roam as if it’s a stable climate. As Cypher says, “every life form has evolved to kill man.” Say what? You can build a spaceship with a nuclear fusion drive, but you can’t take out a troop of oversized baboons?
There’s also the weird notion that man can only sort of breathe on the new Earth. I won’t even go into it, but the bulk of the film is Cypher sitting in a chair–a burnt out game console if you will–shouting commands into the earpiece (well actually, a wrist-piece but you get the idea) of his charge as he evades the local fauna and the Ursa.
Never have I seen Will Smith so stiff and inarticulate, and I wonder now, if all that early praise for Jaden was premature. And, for such a high powered concept, I was amazed at the degree of fluctuation in FX which ranged from brilliantly seamless to a gooey slathering of Cheese-Wiz.
In the wake of such wreckage, who knows if Shyamalan will ever make a feature again? I hope he gets a chance at redemption. as for Will, he’ll be fine. He’s been here before with “The Wild West” and proven to be bulletproof. Then there’s Jaden. He’ll get another shot and he should use it wisely. He’s got an in, and Will shouldn’t push too hard. I appreciate the parenting instinct, I truly do, but don’t give into nepotism or the egotistical desire for legacy. You’re making bad picks for yourself Will, don’t do your son the same disservice.
—- Tom Meek