‘After Earth' a flawed apocalyptic adventure
Published: Friday, May 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 3:01 p.m.
You can say this much for M. Night Shyamalan: After four universally panned disasters reduced him to a punch line, he's moving in the right direction. “After Earth” isn't good enough to qualify as a comeback, but it's not awful in the manner of, say, “The Village.” The problem with “After Earth” is that for everything it gets right, it gets something else wrong.
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz
The story, for example, has a lot of promise as a broad concept. After humans have fled the Earth to colonize other worlds, an estranged father (Will Smith) and son (Jaden Smith) crash on the planet and have to work together to survive while also repairing their relationship. Sounds interesting, and there's some novelty in the fact that the story is credited to Will Smith, one of the movie's stars. The problem is that the actual script by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta is a clunky mess, weighed down by stilted dialogue and entirely too much exposition in the opening stages.
The script also leaves some plot holes that, depending on the viewer, could prove fatally distracting. The opening narration by Kitai, Jaden Smith's character, tells us that humanity left Earth because we effectively destroyed the environment. All well and good, but then why are there suddenly deadly predators everywhere when Kitai and his father, Cypher, crash on Earth? Furthermore, Cypher says that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” but how is that possible when people haven't been there for a long time and the environment was supposedly destroyed? These questions fade somewhat once the movie finds its stride in the second act, but sticklers for plot continuity will have a hard time suspending disbelief.
Moving on to the cast, it's another case of mixed results. As Cypher, a war hero who's struggling to bond with his son while also carrying guilt over the death of his daughter, Will Smith does an admirable job. Smith has always had a naturally empathetic presence, but he buries it somewhat to effectively convey a gruff military commander while also hinting at troubled emotional depths beneath the surface.
Jaden Smith, on the other hand, demonstrates the dangers of nepotism with his performance as Kitai. He's awkward and out of his depth, which sort of makes sense in the context of his character, but you get the sense watching him that it's because he's having trouble getting into the role. This would be less of a problem if this movie wasn't essentially a two-man show, but since Kitai is the main character, Jaden Smith's struggles undermine a lot of the movie.
The movie's effects are, as fits the pattern, a mixed bag. The creature effects are pretty good, especially when it comes to the alien monster that stalks Kitai for much of the movie. But the CGI backgrounds and production design look cheap, which sometimes pulls you out of the moment. That said, while Shyamalan's forte is clearly in the realm of suspense (the scenes in which Kitai's being stalked by the alien are the movie's best), he also shows himself to be fairly capable at handling chase scenes and fight scenes, so those looking for post-apocalyptic adventure will get their money's worth.
When it comes to recommending “After Earth,” it's a tough call. The good parts really are pretty good, but they're all offset by other elements that don't really work. Whether its strengths outweigh its weaknesses may depend on the viewer, but it seems unlikely that “After Earth” would be remembered if we all had to leave tomorrow.