M Night Shyamalan is a director of two-halves. On one hand we have the man who gave us the amazing blockbusters Signs, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, which were met with commercial and critical success; and on the other hand we have the man who tortured the cinema-going public with abominations like The Lady in the Water, The Village and perhaps one of the worst films of all time, The Happening.
However, despite his recent offerings, the studios are allowing him to have another go, teaming up with Will Smith and his son Jaden in the sci-fi thriller After Earth. But can it mark a return to form for the struggling director?
After Earth begins with Jaden Smith getting the audience up to speed with exactly what has happened before the film began. The human race has had to leave the planet to ensure the continuation of our species after purging all the resources Earth had to offer.
Their new home, Nova Prime is a hostile environment, not unlike Mars in appearance with its rugged, red rocks and sweeping planes of space sand. After years of peace, an alien race intends to conquer their new home and enslave mankind with their secret weapons, the Ursas. These predatory beasts are technically blind, but sense fear and because of their grotesque appearance, it is easy to see why they can kill so quickly. The only way to survive an Ursa attack is to ‘ghost’, to not secrete the fear they need to ‘see’ you.
Jaden Smith plays Kitai, a young cadet who is on a training regime to become a ranger like his father Cypher (Will Smith). It’s fair to say they have a fraught relationship which is in part to Cypher being away for long periods of time defending Nova Prime, and partly because of the death of his daughter at the hands of an Ursa; something which Kitai blames himself for.
In an attempt to bond the pair together, their mother Faia, played briefly by Sophie Okonedo, convinces Cypher to take Kitai on his last voyage before retirement. On their journey their ship is severely damaged by an asteroid field and subsequently crashes on an inhospitable planet; no prizes for guessing where.
After discovering that his father has two badly broken legs, Kitai realises, with a little help from his dad, that he must travel 100km through Earth’s once pleasant land to retrieve an emergency signalling beacon – otherwise, they will die.
What ensues is a formulaic father, son bonding story mixed in with some mildly entertaining action pieces which try and get the heart racing. The problem with the film as a whole is that we, as the audience, never really sense any danger. Despite Kitai being attacked by a troop of baboons, poisoned by a leech and almost eviscerated by a group of big cats, we never think anything too awful is going to happen, simply because the film would be pointless if the duo weren’t rescued in the end.
Side-lining one of Hollywood’s most loved actors with two broken legs was a brave move by Shyamalan and it is done with a small degree of success. Smith senior suffers as a result of being bed-ridden for the duration and doesn’t perform as well as some of his other recent roles; I am Legend and I, Robot being prime examples. This isn’t to say that he isn’t engaging, as he always is, but it falls well short of his best characterisations.
The major fault with After Earth is in its leading man. Jaden Smith is a good actor, but he is not good enough to carry an entire film for over 90 minutes, we see him shout, pout and look into the camera longingly, but there is little else here and that’s a shame. He lacks the charisma and the charm that has made his father such a joy to watch over the years.
Special effects are a mixed bag, in some sequences, like the sweeping shots of Nova Prime and the cities which are dotted across its landscape, the effect is very good and the 4k resolution that Shyamalan has filmed in makes everything look crisp and sharp. However, the CGI animals, especially the big cats and the Ursa alien look a little like something pre-2000 and are disappointing.
Overall, After Earth is not as bad as the reviews and its dire box-office performance would suggest, and comparing it to Battlefield Earth is downright ridiculous. It is by no means a masterpiece, but as a slice of cheesy, sentimental popcorn entertainment it succeeds and does so well. Will Smith and his son Jaden are good, but not outstanding and the special effects look rushed – but this is offset by a wonderful soundtrack and a surprisingly deep and meaningful story. It may not be the career revival that Shyamalan was hoping for, but if this is the last film he directs he can at least be content. Set your expectations low and you’ll come out pleasantly surprised.
Special Effects/Cinematography: 5/10
Costume Design: 7/10
OVERALL: 37/60 – A mildly exciting film, just lacking a little touch of magic.