Film Review: ‘After Earth’

M. Night Shyamalan's latest non-happening will prove a litmus test of Will Smith's continued drawing power.

The last time M. Night Shyamalan tried his hand at a big-budget “Man vs. Wild” episode, with 2008’s “The Happening,” the unseen villainess was none other than Mother Nature herself. In the decided non-happening that is Shyamalan’s latest, “After Earth,” the threats lurking on a post-apocalyptic blue planet include baboons, predatory birds and a giant alien beastie that looks like a rejected prototype from H.R. Giger’s workshop. (At least there are no Tom Cruise clones.) But it’s Shyamalan’s career, and that of producer-director Will Smith, that seem to be struggling for survival in this listless sci-fi wilderness adventure — a grim hodgepodge of “Avatar,” “The Hunger Games” and “Life of Pi” that won’t come anywhere near equaling those juggernauts with the ticketbuying public. Opening in a very crowded summer frame, the pic will prove an even greater litmus test of Smith’s continued drawing power than 2008’s ill-conceived Christ allegory “Seven Pounds.”

SEE ALSO: M. Night Shyamalan Goes Dark On “After Earth

Clearly envisioned as a franchise starter for Smith and Sony, “After Earth” comes with a detailed press kit offering pages and pages of backstory fleshing out the film’s futuristic universe, little if any of it actually addressed in the pic itself (suggesting either long-range sequel plans or lots of carnage on the cutting-room floor). Smith, who gave one of his best performances in the similar last-man-on-Earth vehicle “I Am Legend,” here mostly takes a backseat to his 14-year-old son, Jaden, whose Kitai Raige (how’s that for a character name?) is a cadet in the United Ranger Corps, a militia formed a millennium ago when Earth was in the last stages of its man-made downfall (cue montage of floods, fires, riots). Now, humankind has a new home planet, Nova Prime. The only problem: a hostile alien species that considers Nova Prime its birthright, and has spent most of the past thousand years trying to kill us with genetically engineered monsters known as ursas.

Some time before our story begins, one such ursa has made lunch out of Kitai’s older sister, Senshi (Zoe Isabella Kravitz), an incident that has driven an emotional wedge between Kitai and his father, Cypher (the elder Smith), each of whom on some level blames the other for the loss. Making matters worse, Cypher is something like the George Patton of the Ranger Corps, storied for slaying ursas with his patented “ghosting” technique, in which he becomes invisible to the scent-guided creatures by suppressing his pheromone-generating fears. (There is no simple explanation for anything in this movie.) In short: It’s a tough act for young Kitai to live up to.

In a bid to get this slow-moving story started with a bang, Shyamalan opens with the spaceship crash that eventually strands Kitai and Cypher on Earth, then flashes back 72 hours to pile on yet more backstory. Kitai has failed, it seems, to advance to the next level in Ranger training, putting a damper on his reunion with Dad, who’s just returned from his latest mission. But as wise old Mom (Sophie Okonedo) advises Cypher, Kitai “doesn’t need a commanding officer, he needs a father.” So when it’s time for Cypher to ship out again, he brings his son along for the ride, little realizing that an asteroid storm will tear their ship to smithereens and leave them the only two human survivors. There’s also one non-human survivor: a captured ursa that the ship was transporting to use in a training exercise, now loosed from its cage and prowling the Earth.

Laid low with a badly broken leg and jacked up on hallucinogenic painkillers, Cypher spends most of the rest of the film doing one long “Camille” routine, while Kitai begins the more-than-60-mile trek to the other half of the ship’s wreckage, to retrieve a much-needed emergency beacon. It’s a journey in which a lot of the rules seem rather arbitrary: For reasons never satisfyingly explained, the Earth’s atmosphere has become too toxic for human consumption, but poses no threat to other oxygen-breathing fauna that seem to have flourished in mankind’s absence. At the same time, the planet’s surface temperature has evidently been ravaged by climate change, forcing Kitai to get to certain designated “hot spots” by nightfall in order to avoid turning into a human popsicle.

Papa Smith, who also takes a story credit, reportedly conceived of “After Earth” as a contemporary survival tale set in the wilds of Alaska, and the pic might have packed more punch rendered in spare, Jack London-esque fashion. Festooned instead with special effects— from CG animals (none as convincing as “Pi’s” tiger) to bits of CG volcanic ash hovering against charcoal CG skies — it’s a leaden affair, even at barely 90 minutes (not counting credits). Donning an impermeable tough-guy facade, and hovering on the edge of consciousness for much of the running time, the senior Smith gives one of the least substantive performances of his career, while the undeniably charismatic Jaden toggles between two primary modes of expression: paralyzing fear and simmering rage.

Though he shares screenplay credit with Gary Whitta, Shyamalan is clearly a director-for-hire here, his disinterest palpable from first frame to last. Nowhere in evidence is the gifted “Sixth Sense” director who once brought intricately crafted setpieces and cinematic sleight-of-hand to even the least of his own movies. This film, rather, is essentially one long anticlimax culminating in the inevitable duel between Kitai and the amorphous-looking ursa — a creature as shapeless and indistinct as “After Earth” itself.

Shot by frequent David Cronenberg cameraman Peter Suschitzky on Sony’s new F65 CineAlta digital system, the pic sports a crisp but generally undistinguished look, with a muted color palette and much obvious post-production image manipulation. Production designer Tom Sanders and costume designer Amy Westcott offer a fairly rote vision of the future in steely modernist architecture and earth-toned unitards.

Film Review: 'After Earth'

Reviewed at AMC Empire, New York, May 29, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of an Overbrook Entertainment/Blinding Edge Pictures production. Produced by Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter, M. Night Shyamalan. Executive producer, E. Bennett Walsh. Co-producers, Ashwin Rajan, John Rusk.

Crew

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Screenplay, Gary Whitta, Shyamalan; story, Will Smith. Camera (Deluxe color, Sony F65 CineAlta digital, widescreen), Peter Suschitzky; editor, Steven Rosenblum; music, James Newton Howard; production designer, Tom Sanders; art directors, Naaman Marshall, Robert Joseph, Dean Wolcott; set decorator, Rosemary Brandenburg; set designers, Robert Woodruff, David Meyer, Theodore Sharps; costume designer, Amy Westcott; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital/SDDS), Tod Maitland; sound designer, Randy Thom; supervising sound editors, Steven Ticknor, Charles Maynes; re-recording mixers, Paul Massey, David Giammarco, Deb Adair; visual effects supervisor, Jonathan Rothbart; visual effects producer, Jenny Fulle; visual effects, the Creative-Cartel, Tippett Studio, Iloura, Pixomondo, Spy, Svengali FX, Ollin VFX; stunt coordinators, Chad Stahelski, R.A. Rondell; aerial stunt coordinator,  Timothy Rigby; associate producer, Kwame L. Parker; assistant director, John Rusk; second unit director, Stahelski; second unit camera, Pat Capone; casting, Douglas Aibel. 

With

Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Isabella Kravitz, Lincoln Lewis, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Isabelle Fuhrman, Kristofer Hivju, David Denman.

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  1. I really enjoyed After Earth. I enjoyed the quietness of the film and the strong coming-of-age story of Katai. Will it compete with movies like World War Z, probably not, but as a woman of color who appreciates solid acting and touching stories that feature people of color, I found After Earth to be a breath of fresh air. I believed in the relationship onscreen between Will and Jayden and hope that this is a reflection of their relationship in real life. With so many negative, downright silly, or stereotypical stories about people of color, After Earth, though a tad predictable, was a great family movie for me. I fell in love with Jayden Smith and really routed for him throghout the film. Though Will Smith’s role was quieter than usual, it was effective in the storytelling. I was very pleased and will probably see it again….and Sophie Okenedu…always so lovely.

  2. Omg21 says:

    What is the name of the planet in this film??

  3. Beth says:

    Just got back from it… so very, very bad. Utterly predictable, unrealistic, plodding, and freely ignored basic laws of biology and evolution. The acting was fine, but honestly that was the only thing that wasn’t truly horrible. Don’t waste your money on this one, like we did.

  4. Micheal Wade says:

    I expect more from Mr Smith on this movie and i know hes trying help his son but turning him into a mini-me wont work! He knows this now! Let ur son grow up on his own and stop with this crazy stuff! Hes not you Mr Smith so let him find his own way! This a terrible movie cau ur trying to make ur son you! Give him room to grow in whatever path he chooses!

  5. amazingbear says:

    Yea, these critics clearly have a ‘biased’ agenda against M Night. Just got back from the movie, and it was absolutely spectacular. Every minute was captivating, the soundtrack classic, solid acting by the Smith crew, it was a class act. The audience reactions at the end of it were like, what the heck were those critics talking about! This was by far the best sci-fi of the year, spiritual, intelligent, atmospheric. Go watch it and make up your own mind, these $15 per hour critics are just plain lying.

    • godtisx says:

      Yeah, if people stopped long enough to catch their breaths, instead of swallowing the sludge, I suspect they’d conclude most professional critics are full of it too. I’m not the least bit surprised at what you’re saying and plan to go see it. I read these reviews for another reason, not to figure out if I want to see the film or not. Audiences need to use their own guts or find reviews on ‘personal blogs,’ not online publications. It’s political…

  6. CoolLoon says:

    Just saw it last night and your review pretty much captures it – production quality and all – except I thought the backstory was woven into the present pretty well. The maternal bird-of-prey storyline was truly touching. In fact, for me it is the most memorable emotional vignette in the film. And I, too, sorely missed Will in action. But I think the film is worth seeing and would recommend to friends on the merit of seeing Smith x 2.

  7. WILL SMITH IS HIS NAME AND HIS GAME IS “FAME”. WRITE ABOUT HIM OR HIS FMAILY BUT IT DONT MATTER. HE HAS BEATEN HIS WIFE OR KIDS, HE HAS NOT CAME OUT OF REHAP THE 9TH TIME, HE HAS NOT BEEN CAUGHT BREAKING INTO HIS FRIENDS HOMES HE LOVES HIS COUNTRY. HE LOVES HIS FAITH WHATEVER IT MAY BE! SO LAY OFF AND ASK THE QUESTION WHY DO WE HAVE DOUBLE STANDARDS IN THE MEDIA GAME?

  8. I wish Will and the film great success….

  9. LR Hubbard says:

    Scientology posed as a summer blockbuster movie. No thanks.

  10. The Kingslayer says:

    Will Smith shouldn’t have turned down Django.

    • amazingbear says:

      Django sucked. The people are really being dumbed down.

    • ikr says:

      He was right to turn it down. The Django role called for a low-key personality, it was a part that required an actor who could play a humble, subsidiary role. Will Smith has too much on-screen personality, too much charisma. And, yes, he’s an actor, he could just ‘act’ humble, but his larger-than-life persona would have shone through and spoiled the feel of the movie. Jamie Foxx did great.

    • Everyone says:

      We should all be thankful that he turned it down.

  11. LOL says:

    In years to come this movie will be remembered as a masterpiece that was way ahead of its time and totally misunderstood by dumb audiences. Shyamalan has made a classic adventure: the one he is celebrated for when his obituaries are published.

  12. Debbie says:

    Just saw a screening of AFTER EARTH. Phony scenery and props, boring, and lacking any really interesting or even good moments, this movie was a dud.

  13. Lionel Zavitz says:

    “(Shyamalan’s) disinterest palpable from first frame to last.”

    I think you are describing every Sham film since he cashed in with his first success. He has had no hunger since to perfect a work of art, and it very much shows in his last half-dozen or so films, his work of this entire millennium.

    But he still gets paid the 7-figure fees to show up and be completely disinterested, so why in the world would he ever consider changing his strategy?

  14. Kile Ozier says:

    “After Birth”

  15. Brandon says:

    Plants don’t breathe in oxygen. They “breathe in” carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen through the process known as photosynthesis. So that’s not really a plot hole.

    • Jake says:

      He said fauna, fauna refers to animals, not plants. He never mentioned plants. Earth animals breath oxygen just like humans so this would be a significant plot hole.

      • rosalnd says:

        A little biology here: plants respire just like animals….both use oxygen to “burn” glucose and fats. Plants “fix” carbon dioxide in photosynthesis–a process that uses the photons from sunlight, water, CO2 to make glucose. Photosynthesis is not the same thing as respiration. Photosynthesis makes glucose and respiration burns glucose (and fats). All organisms with the exception of strict anaerobic bacteria use oxygen for respiration.

    • Darwin says:

      Plants are flora. He said fauna…

    • Verona says:

      Plants still need oxygen at night

    • Scott Foundas says:

      No kidding. It is a question of animals, not plants.

  16. Proofread says:

    Great review Scott! I think you left out the word “effects” from this sentence – “Festooned instead with special — from CG animals…”

  17. Jon says:

    Oops. Oh dear.

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