-Review by Paul Ewbank-
Bad films can still be entertaining. Just like how you can watch or read something and cerebrally know it’s very well made and intelligent but still honestly find it a bit boring (coughbladerunnercough), it’s very easy to enjoy something whilst knowing its derivative and pretty badly made and probably isn’t going to win many Oscars. Then again, there are plenty of films that are badly made and still just bad-boring, irritating and depressing. I’ve seen plenty of both categories in the realms of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but in the case of After Earth-Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan’s 2013 far future post apocalyptic action flick- what we’re dealing with is undeniably a bad movie that’s just bad. It wasn’t nearly as terrible as the utter panning it has received would suggest, and it did more or less hold my attention on a sleepy Saturday evening, but this really isn’t a great movie and it manages to waste all the potential held in its stars and concept.
The basic set up- told in a very rushed montage narrated by Jaden Smith- is that earth gets abandoned due to environmental disasters and so mankind migrates to Nova Prime. On their new planet they encounter the Ursas- a race of generic bug eyes aliens who sense humans by the fear pheromones they emit. The way to combat these aliens is to shut yourself off from fear and thus render yourself invisible to them. Will Smith plays the ridiculously named Cypher Raige- the ranger general who mastered the technique of burying his fear (known as ghosting) and is now regarded as a hero. His son Kitai (real life son Jaden, in case you hadn’t already picked up on that) is a trainee ranger eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, while Cypher himself wants nothing more than to retire. Cypher agrees to take Kitai along on a mission but their ship goes through a storm or something and they crash land on an unknown planet. The ship’s rescue beacon is damaged, and Cypher himself breaks both his legs, so the only way to escape is for Kitai to travel across the deadly alien landscape to the tail section of the ship (which broke off during the crash) and hope their beacon is intact. Oh, and their ship held an ursa in the tail section just, you know, for the fun of it, so this deadly monster is now presumably rampaging about out there too.
Ok so as far as set up goes that’s actually not half bad. Very generic, sure, but it sets up the rest of the story and suggests the kind of predictable but enjoyable action you can get behind. From here out the plot is pure videogame- Kitai has to get to conveniently spaced checkpoints at the end of each day (hotsopts, since the world freezes over at night), battling jungle monsters all the way until he reaches the tail of the ship, just in time for a boss fight with the Ursa and then bam, job done. Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Well no, it doesn’t. And there are actually things to enjoy about After Earth. But boy, the acting ain’t one of them. I love Will Smith and always have, but he’s totally inept in this- affecting some weird monotone with a horrendously forced but still unidentifiable accent which robs him of his usual charisma. I get that the whole point is that he combats danger by remaining calm and emotionless, but being an emotional vacuum for story reasons is still being an emotional vacuum. Even worse is his son, who actually has to try and emote but ends up even more flat and wooden than his father. Will Smith wrote this thing and presumably it’s some kind of allegory for his and Jaden’s careers- Will the old hero, Jaden the young up-and-coming kid trying to follow his father’s life path. The only problem is that Jaden Smith is not his father and does not have anything like his talent. Not yet, anyway.
There’s plot contrivances and idiotic choices all round, but that kind of thing is normally forgivable. Here they’re paired with cheap looking effects and frankly lousy direction from the trainwreck of a director that is M Night Shyamalan recently, and the result is pretty jolly disastrous at times. The low point is when Kitai gets caught and dropped into the nest of a giant mutant eagle (oh yeah, it was earth all along in case you didn’t guess from the title), and when the nest is then set upon by mutant cat things, he inexplicably decides to defend the little chicks who were trying to peck his face off a moment ago. Later on the eagle- an unintelligent, instinct driven animal- saves his life in thanks, and when the eagle dies Kitai looks sorrowfully at its body and whispers “thanks” as sombre music plays. I was in stitches. Other lowlights include Kitai being confronted with a very angry ape thing and inexplicable deciding that the best thing to do would be to lob a rock at it. Also why are these ranger guys armed with highly elaborate shape shifting double bladed weapons but no freaking guns?
At its best After Earth is the kind of mindless, derivative sci-fi that just about gets away with it and would probably still entertain genre fans if they came across it on the sci-fi channel in a few years time. At its worst it’s really pretty awful and the more I think about it, the more reasons I have to dislike it. You really don’t expect to be scraping the barrel this low for such a huge, expensive production with such a big star, and I’d struggle to recommend this one to even diehard Will Smith fans. Not as bad as everyone seems to say, but rubbish by any other measure.