Two thoughts after finishing M. Night Shyamalan's latest, After Earth: the Smith family, or at least Will Smith and Jaden Smith, currently rivals the Cruise's in trying to portray a happy, functioning, unit - and M. Night Shyamalan has somehow managed to make a film worse than The Last Airbender.
At least with TLA, it managed to close out the film with one scene that had energy. After Earth doesn't go this far. It's a film that pretends to harsh science-fiction realms but coats the visuals in the sheen of early computer game-era graphics. So many moments in the film reek of artificiality to the point where I became uncomfortable watching the Smith men say their lines with no inflection or emotion. The enterprise is another product of the Smith empire, a vaguely disguised attempt at highlighting just how uncomfortable the elder Smith is knowing his legacy is with a kid whose growing less secure in front of the camera as time goes on.
What happened to Jaden? He was great in The Karate Kid a few years ago, giving a well-rounded performance that could have been a ooh-rah American cliché. There isn't a single moment in After Earth where he seems confident in any of the growth his character is supposed to have. In a bizarre turn, the scene where the fictional son played by Jaden stands up to the equally false construct of a father plays like a disgruntled kid unhappy that he has to play disgruntled. Jaden, for all the world, does not seem like this is something he wants to do. Instead, much like in the film, it's something that his fake/real father wants instead.
After Earth is almost fascinating in this regard. Considering that Will Smith is also responsible for the story as well as well as he and two other Smith's sharing Producer credits, it's unlikely there's much of this film that got onscreen without his permission. I feel bad for Shyamalan and screenwriter Gary Whitta in this case. The groundwork was laid for them upfront with Smith laying out his ridiculously unoriginal idea of an Earth whose inhabitants eventually evolve to combat humans. I have to wonder if anyone stopped to realize that Shyamalan already covered this ground with his hilariously terrible The Happening, but that would have been an inconvenient bump in securing the Smith family legacy.
Smith's story takes place on an Earth that has been abandoned for one thousand years after the violent evolution. On a routine mission to dispose of one of their deadliest predators, human military leader Cypher Raige (Will) and son Kitai (Jaden) have to make an emergency landing on the now-hostile planet. One sign that the science-fiction element wasn't thought through very well is how evolution apparently stopped right at the "killing humans" level and didn't progress during the thousand years that they were gone. Rarely do we see any of the wildlife interact with one another, instead providing a bland backdrop of overly large birds and monkeys for the young Kitai to do battle with as he similarly wrestles with the voice of his wounded father giving him instructions. Such instructions include lines like, "See, smell, use your senses," which should signal an attempt to tell the story visually, instead just leads to more hand-holding exposition.
The dialogue is every bit as bad with painful exposition as Shyamalan's previous four films. After threatening to respect the audience's intelligence by opening the film en media res, it jumps back to before the ill-fated journey so that father and son can share their mutual disappointment with one another in conversations where they outline exactly that. Worse are the many lines dedicated to pointing out the differences between father and son. I can think of three separate scenes where a random passer-by, never seen or heard from again, says, "There's the great commander Cypher and his piddling son Kitai." This is paint-by-numbers conversation that repeats the same pattern - once is enough to establish the problems, by the fourth time the film starts to stretch at the seams of its padding.
This lack of trust extends to Shyamalan's direction which doesn't bother to try to tell the story with any visual sophistication. All the clues and style that he had in his earliest films now consists of flat action scenes where characters move in a single plane. There is not a single moment in After Earth that is worth remembering for the visuals and barely any of it is used to tell the story beyond giving Smith 'n son a dull environment to deliver their lines. What's worse is that the one visual metaphor that could have worked, which involves an overprotective giant eagle, is ruined by the inclusion of a line uttered by Jaden that underlines exactly what the audience should be feeling. After Earth also boasts the worst CGI I have seen in years, barely rivaling the full-motion videos of early computer games in complexity and design.
It seems that after his last few failures, Shyamalan has lost all confidence as a director and is working as a hired gun for now on. This is a real shame, because Unbreakable, Signs, and The Sixth Sense are all excellent movies. But after people complained about the supposed plot holes in Signs it's like Shyamalan started challenging himself to do the broadest films possible. The occasionally intriguing The Village crumbled under its exposition-heavy final scenes, Lady in the Water was like a child screaming at people teasing at him, The Happening had no tonal control whatsoever, and The Last Airbender made certain that none of the beauty and complexity of its source material made it to the screen.
Even if I give After Earth the benefit of the doubt and read it as a confused allegory for the confidence Will Smith has in his legacy it does not change that it never works as a movie. Instead it plays as bad fan fiction that Shyamalan and Smith cooked up for Smith's family. Blowing a hundred million dollars to tell your offspring how disappointed you are in them could have made for cruel brilliance, instead it's boring and pathetic.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Screenplay written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta.
Starring Will and Jaden Smith.