The Reel: Shyamlan’s “After Earth” another dud

Ben Conniff

For director M. Night Shyamalan, gone are the days of children with a “six sense” or “unbreakable” men.

Since “Signs”, the extraterrestrial thriller that came out in 2002, Shyamalan has struggled to repeat his early success. The films from Shyamalan at the helm between 2004’s “The Village” and 2010’s “The Last Airbender” have been met with critical ambivalence and mediocre box-office returns. This week Shyamalan brings yet another sci-fi story to the screen, this time from the mind of actor Will Smith.

After Earth tells the story of young Kitai Raige (Will’s son, Jaden Smith), a boy trying to find his place within the ranks of his father’s military outfit on an off-planet colony in the distant future. In an effort to become less of a commanding officer and more of a father figure to his son, Kitai’s father Cypher (Will Smith) brings him on a mission. Their ship crash-lands on Earth — a planet that has evolved to become violently uninhabitable for humans. With his father gravely injured from the wreck, Kitai embarks on a dangerous mission across the wilderness alone.

The screenplay from Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) is unimpressive. The plot is straightforward and takes a long time to get going. Aside from one or two action sequences with Kitai in the wilderness, there’s nothing of merit visually. After Earth could have been the next “Life of Pi”, but the sense of wonder isn’t there. The film feels like a bland, baseline attempt to adapt Will Smith’s father-son blockbuster for the big screen. Too bad the 14 year-old Jaden doesn’t have the acting chops yet to pull it off.

Jaden’s Kitai feels as if he got picked to read a passage in an English class and is trying to add whatever flair he can to the text in order to make it sound appealing. It’s like he’s read the script verbatim, adding in ridiculous accent. The final product is barely passable for acting in a high-school play. Jaden is great in movies like “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Karate Kid” because he was believable in his “little-kid” roles. “After Earth” marks his first foray into carrying a mature feature, and I’m sorry to say that at 14, Jaden isn’t there yet. But give him a few more years and a couple more pointers from Dad, and the kid will be a superstar.

Papa Smith is rock-solid as always in the role of Cypher Raige, Kitai’s militaristic father. It’s not a particularly demanding part, considering Smith spends almost the entire movie confined to his seat in the crashed vessel’s cockpit. Smith’s performance reminds me of Zachary Quinto’s as Spock in this year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness”. Like Quinto’s Spock, Smith never cracks a smile, yet his acting ranges from stoically comical to dolefully dramatic. He does all this while maintaining Cypher’s iron resolve and absurd accent. The older Smith is the best thing “After Earth” has going for it.

Being a sci-fi tale set on an abandoned planet in the distant future, you’d expect some decent visual effects. But there are none to be found in “After Earth”. All the animals look cartoonish and fake. Not to mention whatever off-planet settlement the characters live on bears a striking resemblance to the Grand Canyon with slipshod cartoon structures layered over it. This movie would’ve been at the height of digital effects technology had it been made in 2006.

It’s clear that M. Night Shyamalan has not yet found a way to repeat the critical and commercial success he once found with movies like “Signs” and “The Sixth Sense”. While the film features a solid performance from the elder Smith and a couple of decent action scenes, dated CGI and a drearily slow plot cause the film to miss the mark.