When you finish watching a movie and one of the best things you can say about it is ‘well, it wasn’t horrible’ then you know deep down that it really wasn’t all that great. Such is the case with M. Night Shyamalan’s latest outing, After Earth – when the credits rolled all that I could think of was ‘at least it wasn’t as bad as The Last Airbender’. A sci-fi based on a story by Will Smith, After Earth is bogged down by exposition and moves at a snail’s pace for most of its 100-minute runtime. The film only gains momentum in its latter half, but by then you’ve already spotted the predictable ending and critiqued the fake-feeling props and CGI.
It’s a shame because the fault is with neither the actors nor the core story ideas. Smith does an admirable job as Cypher Raige, a hardened general of The Ranger Corps. He’s a ‘ghost’, a man without fear who’s renowned for being invisible to the monstrous Ursas – aliens from the Cloverfield school of monster design that ‘see’ by sensing the pheromones that people excrete when afraid. A tough man, he’s somewhat estranged from his son, Kitai, who’s played here by Will Smith’s actual son Jaden (The Karate Kid).
In an attempt to bond with his son before retirement, Cypher accompanies Kitai on a trip but their spaceship is damaged and crashes on a post-apocalyptic Earth – a place that’s now quarantined and devoid of human life, where everything has evolved to kill people. Only father and son survive the crash, but Cypher’s legs are badly injured so Kitai is forced to make a long trek alone to recover a rescue beacon that resides in the tail section of their ship which broke off during the crash. Thankfully, Cypher is able to remotely guide his son since danger lurks around every corner. The gravest threat however, is the possibility of an alive and escaped Ursa which was imprisoned on their ship for transport.
The stage is therefore set for a father-son bonding story and a compelling coming-of-age tale, but Shyamalan cripples it thanks to a cliché screenplay based on Smith’s fertile story ideas. This is further exacerbated by wooden, uninspired directorial choices and a wasted budget with uneven special effects and an unremarkable score by composer James Newton Howard. Shyamalan is better than this – he’s shown us that with previous films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. It’s a particular disappointment since the seeds of a great movie are clearly here. Even Jaden Smith is able to pull off a few key emotional scenes with surprising conviction. Instead, we get a hamstrung effort that feels more like a straight-to-DVD sci-fi flick, beginning with a dull opening narration then moving at a crawl with very little action to spice things up until the very end.
Some great ideas are undone by unconvincing production design, a slow-moving story and wooden direction.