What happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Seriously? Other directors have had more rapid falls from grace, but Shyamalan’s has been a gradual destruction of a career. After his first success The Sixth Sense, he followed it up with Unbreakable, a film I believe is just as good, if not better. Signs and The Village both had plenty of problems, but I would argue both still worked relatively well. It seems like somewhere around the time he decided to cast himself in a major role in The Lady in the Water and had Mark Wahlberg yelling at a classroom about where all the bees went in The Happening, something went wrong in Shyamalan’s head. The man who was once heralded as “The Next Hitchcock” quickly became a joke, synonymous with twist endings and became ripe with self-parody.
After The Happening, a film which still feels like a Shyamalan film – albeit a bad one – Shyamalan became less of a auteur and more of a director-for-hire. Nothing in The Last Airbender had any of his personality and his latest film After Earth feels more like a Smith family production, and understandably so, then anything with Shyamalan’s fingerprints on it.
After Earth is produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, her brother Caleeb, and Will Smith, based on a story from Will Smith and stars both Will and Jaden Smith. Basically any chance of outside influence on what this story would become is out of the question with the Smith stronghold around its throat.
In After Earth, Earth has been abandoned 1,000 years ago for mankind’s new home, Nova Prime. While on a mission that lands their ship damaged from an asteroid field, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) are the only remaining crew on their destroyed ship that must crash land on the long-deserted Earth. With Cypher’s legs broken, Kitai must travel alone throughout the supposedly dangerous planet to find a beacon that can call for help.
Cypher is known for being an incredible warrior, taking on beasts known as ursas, who are blind but can smell fear. Cypher uses a technique called “ghosting,” in which he hides all signs of fear from his enemy. His son Kitai however is constantly high-strung and scared, especially now that he’s basically alone on this mission, except for the fact that his father can watch and help him with his every move throughout the planet.
There has been plenty of discussion that After Earth is little more that a Scientology delivery system and with a tagline like “Fear Is A Choice,” there are elements of that, but it’s almost too boring for any sort of larger message like that.
It’s clear that the film’s story will involve Kitai going from a weak warrior to become a strong fighter, capable of not being dragged down by the apparently non-existent fear to gain the respect of his father, but it never earns this in any way. The hero’s journey should involve the character struggling to fight the odds, using his own strength and determination to grow, but in After Earth, Kitai is more a character graced with dumb luck and chance, constantly being rescued by forces out of his control. There should technically be no growth because except for walking long distances and falling, Kitai hasn’t done anything that warrants growth.
It’s been said that there was a 300-page tome of mankind’s history since leaving Earth, yet you would never guess their was any depth to the story at all. Everything here is incredibly basic, from the film’s bland color palate and directing to the often unintentionally hilarious dialogue.
Also, considering that this is a world that has supposedly been involving for a millennium to destroy humans, the Earth isn’t all that threatening. The majority of Kitai’s problems are self-caused. For example, Kitai comes across a sole monkey. Terrified on the “monster,” he throws a rock at it, then is stunned when he is chased by an entire pack of monkeys. Kitai’s major enemy throughout Earth isn’t any wild beast, but rather escaping his own stupidity. In fact the only real threat to Kitai is a creature that their own ship brought to the world.
But considering how deep the mythology of this world is supposed to be, the amount of information given is surprisingly low. There is almost no explanation over what has happened in the last 1,000 years, or simple questions such as why we no longer use guns? Or why Earth freezes over every night, yet every morning all plant life remains intact? Or how in the future, we have seemingly lost knowledge of where Earth is, yet “Moby Dick” remains a common book read on Nova Prime? If there’s a depth to this world, it doesn’t show at all on the screen.
This is all a shame, because even though the Smith family has become a questionably odd family in the past few years, it is sort of interesting to put Jaden and Will Smith together in a film again. Their last effort together The Pursuit of Happyness, was a well-done and emotionally effective film. There is none of that in After Earth, as the two are separated for most of the film and none of the emotion the film is going for works at all. Whoever thought it was a great idea to make an action film where Will Smith breaks his legs early on with nothing to do but supply exposition and complain is sort of an idiot. Jaden can be a good performer, but he is constantly battling between terrified and angry for most of the film. He’s also given a horrible accent, which sounds like a combination of Jamaican and a mental illness. Most of the film’s cast dabbles in the accent, but most just drop it without any explanation.
What Shyamalan and the Smith regime have created is an unoriginal, uninspired sci-fi film that isn’t nearly as deep as they think it is. If After Earth had the pedigree of these filmmakers in their prime, maybe there would be something to it. Shyamalan used to be great at creating tension and fear, but now he’s only good at generating generic looking dreck. Smith might be too boggled down in ideology to focus on silly things such as story or anything remotely interesting. Instead Shyamalan and Smith made a generic bore that is now a frontrunner for worst film of 2013.