A thousand years have passed since the Earth was abandoned, the population transported to Nova Prime, a stark and desolate world of apparently no discernable variation in weather, where life is prosperous other than when marauding aliens drop fearsome creatures, Ursas, on the surface, to hunt and kill the newcomers. Blind but able to sense the chemical signature of human fear, the population is protected by the Global Ranger Corps, and General Cypher Raige has just returned home to announce to his wife his intention to retire, only to find out his competitive son Kitai has not passed his final examinations. Angry and disappointed, Cypher takes his son with him on a final voyage which is met with disaster; seriously damaged, the ship crashlands on their interdicted home planet, and, in a mathematical fluke, they are the sole human survivors, though it is possible the captive Ursa which was on board in the tail section may not have been killed.
Opening with the promise of a far more interesting story than it delivers, with planetary vistas, adventurous design and creatures which indicate it will be a more bloodless version of Starship Troopers, After Earth quickly descends into blatant and humourless vehicle conceived solely to boost the profile of the lead child actor. While the screenplay by M Night Shyamalan does nobody any favours, the root cause of the problems is Will Smith who is credited with the lacklustre, generic and obvious father/son bonding story which serves as a vehicle for his son Jaden, who he has the conceit to grant the top billing in the cast.
The normally affable Will Smith’s performance is one note throughout: stern, authoritarian and cold, his reserve forcing his son to rise to the occasion both in the challenges of the mission and in carrying the film, but Jaden Smith is a child of no particular talent, and the sole scene where he required to act with anything other than surly obedience or fear, rather than displaying believable anger, just shouts at the screen, a tantrum caught on camera. The sole attempt to give insight to Cypher, as he recounts a war story, is done with such emptiness of spirit it borders on parody, utterly failing to recall the warmth and camaraderie of similar bonding scenes in other films, the most obvious being Jaws.
While flashbacks to before the death of his daughter (Zoë Kravitz, as lifeless before the Ursa dismembers her as after) might be presumed to indicate that he was a once loving father who was damaged by that cruel loss, the scenes are so leaden and Smith senior’s expression so perplexed during the recollections, it is difficult to discern whether they are intended to convey any emotion at all, or simply serve the mechanical purpose of telegraphing the climax of the film where Smith junior overcomes his fear to defeat the escaped Ursa, the goal that was blatantly established in the opening scenes.
Earth itself, where “every lifeform has evolved to kill humans,” a pointless exercise since there aren’t any there and also a very swift one as the exodus was only a thousand years ago, has developed a bizarre habit where the atmosphere has changed composition, requiring supplements for normal breathing (at least the crew of Fireball XL5 never lost their oxygen pills) and the majority of the surface freezes every night and thaws to balmy temperatures the next morning, other than conveniently located geothermal hotspots. Why this should be, other than to introduce more contrived threat to the plot, is not deemed worthy of explanation in a screenplay which was apparently charged by the word, multiple lines being repeated back and forth between the characters in the hope that repetition in the form of a mantra might indicate depth, but the Ranger Corps are not the Bene Gesserit.
Without the interference of humanity to ravage and spoil it, the Earth has done well, beautiful and wonderful and wild; majestic herds blanket the plains, pods of humpback whales frolic along the coasts, all trace of technology and civilisation has been dismantled and subsumed by vegetation other than one conspicuous staircase which now become a water feature, but all the animals are dangerous, those with teeth biting, those without exuding toxins. The message of the film seems to be that the planet is better off without humanity, but still harbours a deep grudge.
While his best work bordered on mysticism and the uncanny, Shyamalan has previously directed an ostensibly science fiction film, Signs, which when focusing on the characters and the building atmosphere and tension was superb and only catastrophically came tumbling down with the final reveal of the aliens and their weakness. With After Earth, overtly and undeniably science fiction from the outset, with spaceships and killer aliens and colonies on distant worlds, Shyamalan demonstrates undeniably that he has not the slightest clue what science fiction is about or what makes it work.
The peril that causes the ship to crash on Earth comes from the school of pulp magazines, a made up threat of nonsense dialogue that immediately propels the audience out of any form of belief – General Cypher Raige has detected graviton vibrations in the hull with his fingertips, but the chances of mass expansion are one in a million, the ship popping out of hyperspace at Earth because the computers defaulted to a non-demarcation point. The people of this world have great faith in their technology, flying around in a spaceship made of fabric flown by children who deliver their stilted lines as though they, along with the rest of the cast, attended the William Shatner Science Fiction Masterclass.
But this is not a science fiction film, it is a children’s film made in a genre under the belief that the gimmick will give it commercial appeal, and a bad children’s film at that. Had the same story been told of a father and son surviving a plane crash on an uncharted island, not only would it have been more believable, it would probably have been a far superior film.
After Earth is now on general release and is also screening in IMAX