STARRING: Jaden Smith, Will Smith,
Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Isabella Kravitz, Glenn Morshower
2013, 100 Minutes, Directed by:
M. Night Shyamalan
Give Will Smith credit. He was a TV pop star who made the transition to the big
screen and became a big movie star. Since then he’s continued to take chances
going from comedy to drama to action and yet always returning science fiction,
for which he seems to have a special affinity. Not every film works, but he
always gives it his best shot.
So, that said, how is
Earth? Well, it’s not as bad as Wild, Wild West.
Garry Whitta and director M. Night Shyamalan have taken a story idea from Smith
that’s essentially a showcase for his son Jaden Smith. Give Will Smith
additional credit for being a loyal and supportive father. And now he needs to
do the right thing and tell the young boy, who turns 15 in July, that he ought
to buckle down in his studies and be prepared to go into another line of work.
Like Tom Cruise’s recent
Oblivion, the movie opens with a tutorial that goes
by quickly and doesn’t make a lot of sense. They key points are that humanity no
longer lives on Earth, and there’s some dangerous alien creatures called “ursa”
who track humans through their fear. If you’re not afraid, you’re invisible to
After all that we focus on the
Raige family. Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants to be a Ranger like his father, but has
not yet qualified. As we learn in his flashbacks, he saw his beloved older
sister (Zoë Isabella Kravitz) get killed by an ursa while he stayed safely
hidden. He feels he was a coward who did nothing even though he was just a child
at the time. His father Cypher (Will Smith) is an emotionless martinet while his
mother (Sophie Okonedo) is warm and loving and tries to get Cypher to unbend.
"Jaden Smith should get a day job!"
Whew. Once all that backstory
is out of the way we find ourselves on Earth where a ship carrying Rangers for a
training exercise has crashed. The only survivors are a seriously wounded Cypher,
callow Kitai and – strongly hinted – the ursa they just happened to be
transporting for training purposes. In order for them to be rescued Kitai has to
travel 200 kilometers across a wild and dangerous terrain. Should he succeed he
will have finally proven himself to his father and himself. Should he fail, they
will both die.
The problems begin with the
fact that as charming as Kravitz and Okonedo are in their few scenes, the film
is almost entirely about the father and son, and neither one succeeds in making
their characters engaging. Will Smith has a relatively wide range as an actor
but here he makes the mistake of playing Cypher as if he were Clint Eastwood on
a bad day. Indeed, Eastwood showed more personality in his Dirty Harry
movies than Smith does in his wooden performance here. As for Jaden, it would
not be fair to call him untalented, but it is fair to note that much as his
father is trying to boost his career, he does not have what it takes to carry
the film himself.
M. Night Shyamalan, presumably
grateful for the job after a string of disastrous films, manages to keep the
story moving. He makes good use of outdoor locations (mostly in California) and
the natural beauty of the wild. The heavy-handed philosophizing that has marked
his other films is mostly absent here except for a speech about how fear is
And that’s the problem with
After Earth in
a nutshell. It could have used a lot more imagination.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a
veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first
novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s
Guide has just been released. He teaches film at Suffolk University and
lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.