By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
8:45 PM EDT, May 30, 2013
I have so many questions after seeing "After Earth," the new sci-fi action-adventure starring Will Smith and his 14-year-old son, Jaden.
First, just how much blinding power is in that famous smile of his? On the day Will Smith floated the idea — "sci-fi flick, father-son friction, me and the kid will star" — did its sheer warmth and radiance make everyone in the room believe that anything, including "After Earth" as an actual, viable movie, was possible?
Someone wrote the checks.
And then someone hired a director. Which leads to another question: Have alien body snatchers made off with M. Night Shyamalan?
There is no small irony that this sci-fi action adventure is about surviving a serious crash. The scorched earth left behind by "After Earth" is sure to leave a scar on everyone involved.
Although the Smith franchise will no doubt recover, the toxic ozone hanging over Shyamalan won't lift any time soon.
"After Earth" has a hint of the skin-crawling fright of Shyamalan films past, the ethereal palette he favors, echoes of the tender human touches we saw in his Oscar-nominated "The Sixth Sense." Enough to feel that Shyamalan is still in there, fighting since "Signs" in 2002 to regain control. But not enough to save "After Earth."
And not enough to explain why the director's films keep getting worse. It must be body snatchers, ones from a planet that has no clue how to make a movie.
Has Smith forgotten that his strength is his warmth, his humanity? The effortless charm of his turns in "Men in Black," "Six Degrees of Separation" and of course "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," which ruled the '90s, does not even show up for a cameo in "After Earth."
That failure to communicate cannot be chalked up to the movie's more serious tone. The actor was equally charismatic in the far more serious "The Pursuit of Happyness." Smith earned that Oscar nod for his portrayal of the homeless Wall Street-hopeful/single dad, another father-son story that featured Jaden.
The bones of Smith's story are not the problem. The issues churned up by an A-type dad with high expectations and a son's failure to measure up are classic. It's the transition to screenplay by Gary Whitta, who wrote the post-apocalyptic tale "The Book of Eli," and Shyamalan, that is rocky.
The script has no nuance, none. And when Shyamalan moves into the director's chair, the script problems are magnified.
Everything is spelled out, underlined in red. Take the close-up on a "Restricted Access" sign followed by the overkill of having someone proceed to explain what "Restricted Access" means.
Speaking of overkill, flashbacks, thousands of them, become things to be feared as much as any space alien.
Smith plays Cypher, a tightly wound, high-ranking United Ranger, protectors of humanity 1,000 years after Earth could no longer sustain life as we know it. Mankind now lives on planet Nova Prime. Its resident aliens, the Skrel, have created a monster race called the Ursa, genetically bred to hunt humans. The Ursas are blind, only able to sniff out our kind by smelling fear. That particular quirk will set up one of the film's major themes — fear and how to control it, or preferably, not have it at all, ever.
After a very dull opening narration to lay out all that history, the film finally gets underway as Kitai (Jaden Smith) is finding out that he failed the test to become a Ranger like Dad. He's bummed, and worse, Dad's due home for dinner tonight after a long stretch patrolling the galaxy, and he'll be bummed too. But Kitai's scientist mom, Faia (Sophie Okonedo), thinks she has the cure — a father-son bonding trip.
After a few recriminations over dinner, Cypher tells Kitai to pack his bag. Not for vacation, but to tag along on Dad's next military mission.
Let's take a moment to talk about the sci-fi effects. In this age of incredible ones, most of "After Earth's" seem inspired by the 1950s, one generation beyond tinfoil. The spacecraft looks exactly like a giant flying stingray sans the tail. Which might not matter, but …. When the craft crashes on a still hostile Earth, the only survivors — Cypher critically injured and Kitai scared to step up — are in the front of the craft, while the life-saving beacon is in the "tail" section.
The rest of the film hangs on finding that oft-mentioned tail. That story arc will test Kitai's courage and Cypher's patience, since the injury means he can bark out orders only by remote. Earth has many perils — mainly its wild animal population and one Ursa that survived the crash — don't ask. Jaden will be required to do a lot of major stunt work if Kitai is to survive.
As Gen. Cypher Raige, Smith has never seemed stiffer, like Patton without the personality. It's as if his Ranger suit were two sizes too small and he's trying to just deal with it. Meanwhile, Jaden struggles with the same issues as his character. He is trying so hard that the teenager's engaging on-screen presence, the one that made "The Karate Kid" such a kick, mostly disappears.
He's best when running, jumping and fighting the beasties. Both dad and lad have a tough time with the deadly dialogue.
If you're still wondering whether "After Earth" is a disaster, the question is not if, but how big?
MPAA rating: PG for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release
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