Most of the ads for “After Earth” have neglected to mention that M. Night Shyamalan co-wrote and directed the film. Movie studios finally seem to be realizing that having Shyamalan’s name plastered above the title will no longer sell tickets.
“After Earth” thankfully isn’t as unbearable as Shyamalan's “The Last Airbender,” “The Village,” “The Happening,” or “Lady in the Water.” But even with some nice visuals and an intriguing premise, the film still suffers from many of Shyamalan’s infamous reoccurring blunders. Hilarious moments that are intended to be serious, totally forced, unnecessary flashbacks, whiny younger characters, and a weak twist ending.
The film takes place 1,000 years in the future. Earth has been abandoned. Will Smith, who also came up with the story for “After Earth,” is General Cypher Raige. He’s a stern, no-nonsense member of the Ranger Corps, a peacekeeping organization that travels the galaxy. To describe Smith’s character as stern may be misleading, though. This guy is so emotionless, passionless, and one-note that he could be an android. That’s not a criticism of Smith, who has great range as an actor. The real fault lies in how lamely Smith’s character is written and directed. Not even the most charismatic man alive could make him interesting.
Will Smith is really only a supporting player anyway. The true star is Smith’s real-life son, Jaden Smith. He plays Raige’s teenage boy, Kitai, who wants to be a ranger like his papa. Regrettably, Kitai isn’t the most physically gifted soldier. The exposition is so rushed, however, that we never even see Kitai struggling during training. To grow closer to his son, Cypher decides to bring Kitai along on a mission. Matters go haywire, however, when their ship crash-lands on the abandoned earth. Both of Cypher’s legs are broken, leaving it up to Kitai to travel across the terrain to find a distress beacon.
Jaden Smith has proven himself to be a capable young actor. He was great alongside his dad in “The Pursuit of Happyness” several years ago. Unfortunately, the only notes he’s given to work with here are distressed, irritable, and annoying. The whole father-son dynamic between Jaden and Will feels so hollow and unnatural, which is a real feat, seeing how they’re actually related. “After Earth” could have been a thrilling and colorful adventure about a parent and child coming together. But Shyamalan’s vision is too drab, too serious, too predicable, and too boring keep anyone invested.
To give Shyamalan credit, “After Earth” is a nice looking movie. His visual style has improved since “The Last Airbender,” which was so darkly shot you could rarely tell what was going on. On occasion, we get a nicely written moment between Will and Jaden. That’s probably thanks to the film’s other writer, Gary Whitta, who wrote “The Book of Eli” and the fourth episode of “The Walking Dead: The Game.”
The problem with “After Earth” is that Shyamalan is simply out of his element. He’s not a science fiction/action adventure director. With his best film, “The Sixth Sense,” he established that he’s best at subtly creating suspense and physiological fear. That’s the complete opposite of a special effects extravaganza like “After Earth.” Why would Shyamalan even take on this kind of material? Maybe he received so much criticism for “The Happening” that he wanted to do a 180. All that’s for certain is that Shyamalan is going through an identity crisis and needs an intervention. If he ever wants to get back on track, he needs to recognize his mistakes, go back to the drawing board, and rediscover his voice.
• Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com