Will Smith is like most fathers: he likes to lay around and make his kid do all the work.
Smith cooked up the story for After Earth as any loving father with worldwide box office clout might do, creating a role for his son Jaden Smith that allows the young man to fly — and also to run and panic and show fear and all kinds of other cool emotions. The story is set in the far future, long after Earth has been conquered by fiercesome aliens who could sense fear in humans, allowing them to annhilate the planet and seed it with plant and animal life that evolved to repel humans. Thus, humans abandoned Earth.
Smith the Father plays Cypher Raige — get it? He’s a cipher, and he’s angry. Cypher is the Grand Poo-Bah of this particular future, at least in the military, and he’s been away from his home planet for several years. He returns home as the film begins, a ramrod-straight military man who snaps at his young teenage son with severity. The poor kid, named Kitai — possibly from the Japanese language, meaning ‘expectation, anticipation, hope’ — and played by Jaden Smith to the best of his ability, is afraid of his father because he has not achieved the rank of Ranger in his military training school. (He’s been told that he has good grades, but ‘falls apart in the field.’ Uh, oh …)
Kindly reminded by his lovely wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo) that he has been away and that his son needs a father more than he needs a commander, Cypher decides to take Kitai with him on a trip to another planet for a little father/son bonding. Unfortunately, that decision turns disastrous when the ship encounters major troubles and ends up on Planet Earth with the entire crew dead, save for Cypher and Kitai. With both legs badly broken and desperately in need of medical attention, Cypher is forced to send Kitai on a 100-kilometer mission by himself in order to locate a beacon and send a distress signal.
Young Kitai immediately makes it clear why he was not approved as a Ranger, panicking at the sight of a baboon-like creature, despite the repeated entreaties of his father, who can communicate with him from the downed ship and provide guidance. This further establishes the two main notes of the story: the father has leaned how to conquer fear, and the son needs to learn that lesson in order for them both to survive.
Those notes are repeated throughout the movie, becoming an overly-familiar refrain. They might have been more effective, however, save for two major problems: Will and Jaden Smith.
In the challenging lead role, 14-year-old Jaden Smith struggles to the point that I felt badly for him, as I did for young Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Smith’s limitations as an actor in The Karate Kid were mitigated by the presence of Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, and the familiarity of the original film. Here, however, he is alone on screen for much of the running time, and he does not, at this point, have the personality or acting chops to transcend the wan nature of his character, or to convincingly pretend that the CGI creatures that often surround him are real. As a result, tension is completely absent from what should be critical scenes of suspense.
In the role he created for himself, 44-year-old Will Smith glowers, moans, grunts, and speaks very, very, very, very, very slowly. It’s the kind of challenge that actors love to set for themselves; in his younger years, he would have been the young man pitted solo against the elements, but, now, the longtime action hero is limited in his physical movements and must convey emotions through his voice, facial gestures, and body language. While he’s much more experienced than his son, dramatic acting is not his forte; mostly, he furrows his brow and keeps the smirk off his face.
His speech patterns are reminiscent of those found in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, where everyone spoke … very … very … very … very … slowly, and the lugubrious pace and atmosphere remind me of that movie as well. Shyamalan wrote himself into a corner of diminishing returns with his ‘thrillers with a twist ending’ by the time The Village escaped in 2004, and endeavored to push his directorial ambitions in new dirctions with Lady in the Water (a fable), The Happening (apocalyptic horror), and The Last Airbender (grand-scale fantasy).
Very much a vehicle for its two stars, After Earth pushes Shyamalan in yet another direction. He shares credit with Gary Whitta on the screenplay, which manifests a philosophical view of character development, but on the whole is extremely slight. Not much actually happens; insights or speculations on the future of Planet Earth or of mankind are not relevant to this movie.
In that sense, Shyamalan is telling what appears to be a very personal, two-person character study in the setting of a big-budget science-fiction action film. In its execution, however, After Earth proves to be ponderous and impersonal, keeping tragedy at arm’s length and embracing a survival ethos that eschews emotional involvement. That makes the movie a major disappointment, more of an endurance test than any kind of thriller.
After Earth opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, May 31.