The critics have really crushed After Earth, calling it a vanity project and stealth propaganda for Scientology. (“Is After Earth the worst film of all time?” read one breathless headline.) (Spoiler alert: no).
I mean, is it a vanity project? I suppose. It was based on a story idea by Will Smith, who co-stars in the film alongside his 14-year-old son Jaden. But so what? Vanity in Hollywood? I am shocked, shocked, shocked!
Is it shilling for Scientology? Beats me. If it is, the message didn’t get through. I can safely say I have no desire to go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of Dianetics. (Although I just downloaded a bunch of Tom Cruise films—strictly a coincidence, I’m sure.)
What it is, really, is a children’s film—well, a tween and teenage boy’s film to be exact—about a young man who proves himself in front of his powerful and withholding father in a rather spectacular way.
It’s the future and the Earth is uninhabitable. Humans were largely wiped out by these sea monstery killer alien things who are blind, but smell fear. Will Smith plays General Cypher Raige (also the name of my new alt-country punk band, by the way), the only man who can “ghost” in front of these killer creatures—i.e., he’s able to master his fear so they can’t detect him.
Now I’m sorry, that may have something to do with Scientology—conquering one’s emotions is apparently a tenet of the religion—but it’s also a damn good concept for an action film. The killer creatures even leave scary traps (hanging corpses, for example) to set off fear pheromones to better track their prey.
Jaden Smith plays the General’s son Kitai, a young man haunted by something he did—or, rather, didn’t do—in his childhood. Because his father is often away on missions, he barely knows the man beyond the legend. And although Cypher loves his son, he can be aloof, as military men tend to be.
So, at his wife’s behest, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission, but something goes horribly wrong, and the space ship crashes—yes, on Earth.
Cypher has two broken legs, so he must send young Kitai off to retrieve a device that can send a signal back to the command station. He’ll be able to monitor his son as he makes the treacherous 100 kilo trek to the device.
And that’s the premise, basically.
It does have several flaws. For one, Jaden is a handsome young man—with cheekbones as high as mama Jada’s and his father’s lean, wiry build—and a perfectly decent actor, but he’s not quite ready to carry a movie like this. It doesn’t help that he seems to have the tiniest bit of a speech impediment. (He can’t say the word “ranger,” for one.) And he narrates the opening montage. Then there’s the fact that Will Smith, such an infectiously charming guy, is playing the stern, taciturn father role, mostly from a prone position. Kind of a waste of the Fresh Prince.
But you know what? I enjoyed After Earth. I found the scenes of Kitai’s quest to be involving. And I bought into the whole “proving yourself in front of daddy” conceit. Hell, I even teared up a bit at the end.
There’s perhaps another reason why critics have been so hard on After Earth. It’s directed and co-written by none other than M. Night Shyamalan—the former wunderkind whose ego ended up being bigger than his talent. Critics hate him, and I’ve come to refer to the gleeful piling on against him as Shyamalanfreude. This is the first time since The Sixth Sense that Shyamalan’s name has not come over the title. He’s not “presenting” this film, he’s just directing it.
The lousy reviews for After Earth haven’t launched Shyamalan’s post-auteur era in the most auspicious way, but he should feel good about this. He’s transitioning from a one-trick pony to an actual director (hint: there are no Twilight Zone-like surprise endings in this one.). Yes, he lays on the flashbacks a little thick and there are several pretentious but empty references to Moby Dick—but mostly he does a solid job.
Bottom line: The deck was unfairly stacked against After Earth. Ignore the haters; it’s not great sci-fi but it’s solid family entertainment.