Review: After Earth / Cert: 12A / Director: M. Night Shyamalan / Screenplay: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan / Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo / Release Date: Out Now
Uh oh. Another cinematic clunker from M. Night Shyamalan to add to his fast-growing reputation as the most clueless and inept filmmaker in the western world? Well, maybe not. After Earth isn’t quite the return to form we might have secretly hoped for from the man who once gave us The Sixth Sense but this futuristic sci-fi adventure (from a story by Will Smith himself), despite some niggling flaws and planet-sized plot holes, is solidly entertaining, agreeably spectacular stuff which if nothing else serves as a decent aperitif to the summer big guns rolling out across the next few weeks.
After Earth sees Shyamalan mercifully abandoning the twist ending shtick which rapidly became the millstone around his neck after his early success and, arguably more interestingly, sees Will Smith adopting a less upfront and more thoughtful role, sitting out the action as his sprightly son Jaden does all the running, jumping and monster-slaying. Perhaps this is what leaves After Earth feeling a little under-powered; love him or loathe him, Smith, Sr is a hugely charismatic presence, but here he’s muted and contemplative, worlds away from the wise-cracking freewheeler of the Men in Black series. As Ranger General Cypher Raige, Smith is in charge of a group of shock Ranger troops from the planet Nova Prime, the new home for the human race after the Earth is ravaged by an environmental disaster. A too-close encounter with an asteroid storm causes the Ranger ship to crash land on the now-quarantined Earth and Raige and his determined young son Cadet Kitai (Smith, Jr) are the only survivors and a hostile human-slaughtering alien, a ferocious Ursa, which was inexplicably being transported on the Ranger ship, has escaped the crash site and is running wild. Cypher is wounded and incapacitated, the ship is split in half and young Kitai has to travel across a hostile and savage landscape to activate the beacon which will summon a rescue ship from Nova Prime.
Despite critical claims that After Earth is a thinly disguised advertisement for the teachings of the much-vilified Scientology movement, the movie’s really little more than a fairly traditional father-bonding-with-son action adventure which suffers from sidelining Will Smith and focussing on the surly and rather bland Jaden who has yet to develop the self-effacing charm and effervescence of his dad and who spends much of the time running around looking worried or else being bitten by parasites or attacked by baboons. The dialogue is pretty much a humour-free zone, consisting of clunky sci-fi space talk, and the plot often has to disregard its own logic (and the basic principles of common sense) for the sake of the next setpiece. Quite why “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans” when humans haven’t lived on Earth for a thousand years is never rationalised and when Dad Will, linked to his adventuring son via some gubbins strapped to the latter’s arm, warns Kitai about “an approaching life-form” which turns out to be a baboon (which Kitai inadvisedly chucks a rock at), you too might wonder why Dad didn’t warn him about the dozens of other baboons which were right behind the first one.
But to its credit After Earth doesn’t mess about; it’s got a very straightforward tale to tell and in the end it just gets on with it, pitching Kitai into combat with apes, leopards and birds and finally the monstrous Ursa itself and if the action’s rarely more than entirely predictable and the dialogue frequently pretentious and clumsy, Shyamalan makes the most of his stunning Costa Rica locations and brings a real drive and dynamism to Kitai’s race against time. After Earth is light throwaway stuff which probably has ideas way above its execution but it’s easily the best movie Shyamalan has made since Signs and whilst it misses the lightness of touch Smith, Sr usually brings to the blockbuster table it’s nothing like as diabolically disastrous as some stuffier critics might have you believe.
Expected Rating: 4 out of 10