The issues with After Earth are many, but at a fundamental level the film’s primary failing is as a science fiction movie. Before you criticise the woeful script or question the Primeval-esque special effects (it cost 0 million, you say?), it is important to point out that the futuristic universe inhabited by our characters makes no sense whatsoever. Taking place approximately a thousand years after humanity was forced to re-establish its home on a new planet, a ship crashes back to Earth and leaves its survivors to battle an ecosystem that has evolved to kill humans — despite there being none left in the food chain.
Almost every scene begs at least one obvious but unanswerable question. Why, in those same thousand years, have humans themselves not evolved to better suit life on Nova Prime, a planet that is revealed to possess diminished gravity and a different atmosphere? Why, if their new home is populated by giant, man-eating Ursa, are the residential buildings unprotected and windows comprised of paper blinds? (The spaceship, meanwhile, seems to be made from little more than bamboo and plastic, yet clears an asteroid field that would make the Millennium Falcon think twice.) Heck, why did they even settle there in the first place?
It would be easy to blame the film’s failings on Will Smith, who is credited with the original idea, or indeed with the whole Smith family, who infamously produced the movie as a multi-million-dollar platform for their son Jaden – and many have. The truth is, however, that science fiction as a genre is inherently silly, and that given the right creative team a few plot holes or inconsistencies shouldn’t really have been a problem. Unfortunately, Gary Whitta’s script and M Night Shyamalan’s direction provide little distraction for the viewer. Simply too many of the film’s problems are shared with Shyamalan’s two previous efforts to rule him out as the cause. Smith’s core concept — of a father and son lost on a hostile world — is about the only thing that works.
In fact, for my money, Will and Jaden Smith are together the best thing about After Earth, though that might be damping them with relatively faint praise. Will Smith nevertheless tackles a difficult (and very un-Will Smith) role, that of General Cypher Raige, a man who has inoculated himself against fear, but who in the process may have also lost the ability to feel anything else either. The scene in which he calms his son as the vessel visibly disintegrates around them is wonderfully played, as are most other sequences saved the indignity of Whitta’s sometimes terrible, more often than not, irredeemable dialogue.
Of course, the true star of After Earth is his son, Jaden, a young actor who has rubbed many up the wrong way with his development from cocky child to stroppy teenager. On screen, however, Jaden has rarely been anything but brilliant. In both his key roles to date — in the similarly Smith-centric Pursuit Of Happiness and 2010’s remake of The Karate Kid — he has proven himself to be a talented and compelling lead. Even in Never Say Never, Jon M. Chu’s Justin Bieber documentary, Jaden displayed a command of his audience and ownership of the stage that was well beyond his years. Here as Kitai Raige, the wannabe Ranger in search of his father’s approval, he holds his own too, practically holding the film together as Shyamalan mishandles flashbacks to an earlier tragedy and misunderstands the behavioural instincts of one particular bird of prey.
Don’t let the one-star reviews fool you, After Earth does have its moments. The crash itself is thrilling, and a number of the later set-pieces are impressive if rarely photo-realistic. Ultimately, however, the film is an ill-conceived and poorly executed star vehicle that doesn’t possess the creativity or filmmaking prowess necessary to turn it into anything more. Take a knee, Shyamalan. You need to take a knee.