Lots of M. Night Shaymalan haters out there! I wouldn’t consider myself a hater. More like a wounded fan. Still haven’t seen his first 2 films (PRAYING WITH ANGER and WIDE AWAKE), but I love THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS. Fantastic! THE VILLAGE and THE LADY IN THE WATER were misfires, but THE HAPPENING was an outright disaster! Now, most people disagree with me when I say that THE LAST AIRBENDER was a fun throwback to cheesy fantasy films of the 80’s (like THE EWOK ADVENTURE). I didn’t hate that one. Now, with AFTER EARTH, he’s back with a story conceived by Will Smith. The trailers looked fantastic. This was definitely one of my most anticipated films of the summer, and I predicted that this was going to be M Night’s long overdue comeback.
The premise is pretty sci-fi geeky cool! Set in the future, people don’t live on Earth anymore because of an alien invasion that happened decades ago. Instead we live on a distant planet. Will Smith plays a legendary ranger named Cypher who returns home from a mission to find out that his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), didn’t pass the test to become a ranger. The father and son don’t communicate very well together. Cypher’s wife suggests that Kitai go along with him on his next mission, which is a routine transfer of some sort of alien cocoon for training purposes (I think).
But things go sour fast. The ship crashes and the only 2 survivors are the father and son. And to make things worse, both of Cypher’s legs are broken. They find out that they landed on planet Earth, where all of the animals and creatures are very hostile. The beacon that can send off a signal for help is several miles away. It’s up to Kitai to journey his way through tough obstacles to get to the beacon. Problem is, the boy has never done anything like this before. He also must learn how to master “Ghosting” which is taking control of your fear. Along the way Kitai faces tough terrain, fierce animals and the alien that used to be aboard the ship, but is now loose on the planet.
Like I said, I was super excited for this movie. I actually really liked the premise. This should have been fantastic. Unfortunately, it was a big letdown! The movie opens with some unnecessary exposition explaining all of the details of the world. Like what “Ghosting” is, what happened to planet Earth, and blah blah blah. It really is unnecessary. It felt like the filmmakers didn’t have confidence in their audience to understand the story they created, so they had to spell everything out for you right away. You know what guys? I think I probably would have figured it out, but thanks though!
Is this movie a disaster? Absolutely not. It’s not terrible. Once things got to planet Earth, there were some pretty cool things. The crash was done well. And then Kitai goes on his quest. There were some nice shots of landscapes as he runs around the deserted planet. The challenges he had to face were exciting too. He gets chased by monkeys, deals with a lethal reaction to something, and must find a way to keep warm when the planet freezes over during the night. My favorite set piece was when Kitai is captured by a giant bird and taken to the nest as food for the baby birds. What happens there is the coolest thing in the movie. There’s a neat development during this sequence which I won’t give away, but I dug it. And the final confrontation with the alien contains some genuinely exciting moments.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, the bad news is that people actually open their mouths to speak in this movie. And that’s a big problem! The acting is laughably bad across the board. Will is probably the best person in this, but that’s not saying a whole lot. His character is supposed to be shut off, emotionally. Will decides the best way to do that is to sound like a robot during the entire film. It’s a very boring character, and a lackluster performance. The supporting cast isn’t very good either. There was a scene early on with some soldiers taunting Kitai, and it just rings false. None of the acting is convincing at all. But the biggest problem of the movie is Jaden Smith. He fucking sucks in this! Now, I liked him in THE KARATE KID, but he is just awful here. He delivers every line like he’s constipated. If he had to act like a robot like his father was doing, I think he would be fine. But Kitai is a very emotional character. He cries a lot, and Jaden just can’t pull that off. He also whined too much. Oh yeah, you could probably get wasted playing a drinking game based on how many times his voice cracks. It made me laugh every time. And then when Jaden is supposed to go through this big transformation at the end, it comes out of nowhere and I didn’t buy it at all. I would compare all of the acting in this to the acting in THE LAST AIRBENDER. But for me, the cheesy bad acting worked in that movie because I felt the movie was supposed to be cheesy and fun. But this movie is supposed to be dead serious, so the bad acting sticks out like a sore thumb.
And that’s a shame, because M. Night actually does a decent job directing the movie, technically. Now, he doesn’t do any of his trademark long shots or anything like that. It’s a very serviceable approach, and for the most part, ordinary. But at least it wasn’t poorly directed. He does a solid job. And I thought he handled the action sequences well. The script could have been better. While I liked the story, I felt the dialogue was a bit on the clichéd side. I’m sure the poor acting didn’t help either. But I liked some of the ideas in it. Like the whole thing of “Fear is not real. It’s a choice”. I like that! The story reminded me of another “rite of passage”-like movie, THE NAKED PREY from 1966. I recommend checking that one out. For the most part, all of the special effects are top-notch. And I really liked James Newton Howards score as well.
This had all the makings of a kick-ass, emotionally satisfying sci-fi adventure. It had a great premise, solid special effects and decent direction, but the film’s potential is derailed by some truly atrocious acting, especially from Jaden Smith. It would be really easy to put all of the blame on M Night here (and I’m sure many haters will), but I don’t think he’s truly to blame here. That would be Will Smith, who thought that his son could actually carry a picture like this. Wrong! Not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Like I said, this has some well crafted set pieces, but I just couldn’t get past the acting on this one. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.
– Running time: 1hr 39min.
(For another opinion of the AFTER EARTH, you can also check out Film Geek Central’s Jesse Hoheisel’s review of AFTER EARTH here)