- 'AFTER EARTH': Will and Jaden Smith star.
"After Earth" has gotten some of the worst blowback of any movie this year, most of it justifiably. People like to scoff at anything that M. Night Shyamalan, the alleged director, puts his name on; I could write that "After Earth" is Shyamalan's worst movie since his last one, but of course Adam Sandler has also been working lately. The father-son team of Will and Jaden Smith carries a whiff of cutesie nepotism, and the elder Smith's dalliances with Scientology have spurred some critics (notably New York magazine's blog Vulture) to dissect "After Earth" as an allegory for L. Ron Hubbard's quackpot spiritual Ponzi scheme. The bad vibes sent "After Earth" to the worst opening weekend of Will Smith's film career — not even the Fresh Prince can rescue a Scientology-influenced M. Night Shyamalan project, and ultimately, for that, perhaps we can be thankful.
But if one demographic stands to miss out as we shuttle "After Earth" into the Razzies dustbin of big-budget flops, it's the 9-to-12-year-old boys for whom this movie was rightly made. Those lads don't care about the baggage, and they don't particularly notice completely asinine story wrinkles that would make the average 17-year-old splutter with laughter from the rear rows. No, to them it might just be cool that a kid and his dad crash a space ship onto earth in the future and the kid has to brave all sorts of jungle menaces to save them both. We can complicate matters further, but when you can assume the action is the only moving premise (and not some 100-minute Trojan Horse advert for a Hollywood church of mail-order rubbish) then you can enjoy the film on its outnumbered merits.
The Smiths play a general and his headstrong son, living in a future where humans have so spoilt the planet that we have to up and move to another. Earth must've gotten really rough, because on the new world, Nova Prime, an alien species sends rampaging monsters to kill us in piles. The monsters, blind, find us by the scent of our fear (kids, you might want to look up the word "pheromone" before plonking down your ticket money). The elder Smith revolutionized the war by suppressing his fear so completely that he became undetectable in battle, thus inventing the ninjalike technique of "ghosting." The son feels he has big shoes to fill, and there's tension; the normally duty-bound father, trying not to be such a distant jerk, decides to let the kid tag along on what should be a milk run to some other planet. But then the ship runs into trouble, finds itself near Earth, tries to crash-land and breaks apart in the atmosphere. None of the other crew survives. With the father's legs broken, the son has to go alone to a chunk of the ship some 60 miles away and send up a distress signal, else they're toast.
Danger is everywhere — the atmosphere is a mess, the whole place freezes each night, huge birds and cats and apes and leeches lurk, and of course a blind human-killing monster escaped from the ship in the crash. The boy has swords and gadgets and his father in his ear directing his movements. He's Robinson Crusoe with all the accouterments of an Xbox game character. There's a lot here for a child to consider: how to relate to a parent in times of trouble, how to handle fear, how to make wise decisions, what to do when a pack of wild baboons chases you through a forest. In the right frame of tween mind, there are worse ways to blow a hot Saturday afternoon.
That said, the plot, the story points, the acting, the direction, the score — they all shout B-movie. That doesn't mean "After Earth" totally fails; it just waddles as a wide target when it stars an A-list actor. Like our heroes as they were making the fateful decision to enter this poisoned planet's atmosphere: You've been warned.