Andy Bockelman: ‘After Earth’ a disheartening father-son excursion
June 6, 2013
"After Earth," PG-13
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Run time: 100 minutes
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Zoë Kravitz and Sophie Okonedo
Craig — Most parents claim they want to leave the world a better place for their offspring. Though we may still have a shot at preventing complete global devastation, the younger generation of "After Earth" isn't so lucky.
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One thousand years into the future, our planet is no longer livable, and mankind has since set up a new settlement in the far reaches of outer space. Even on other worlds, danger looms large, and only under the protection of the Ranger Corps is humanity able to prosper when faced with alien attacks.
Out of all the Rangers, none stands out more than Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a fearless warrior respected unconditionally by his troops. However, his strengths as a military leader haven't translated into his abilities as a father, and his relationship with his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is nonexistent.
With one last mission before he retires, Cypher reluctantly agrees to his wife's (Sophie Okonedo) request that he let the boy accompany him, but what starts as a good bonding experience soon turns terrifying when their ship is torn apart in flight, crashing in the worst possible place: Earth, now a poisonous and entirely hostile world. The father and son are the only members of the crew to survive, and a gravely injured Cypher barely so.
To save them both, Kitai must find a homing beacon within the wreckage of the other half of the ship, spread a great distance away. This means not only braving a wilderness unlike any he's ever seen, but also finally overcoming his anxieties and proving himself to his father.
There's plenty of father/son acting teams, and while the Smith boys have the potential to be the next Lloyd and Jeff Bridges, Kirk and Michael Douglas or Martin and Charlie Sheen, this is hardly the best showcase for them.
Let's start with Will, whose usual effervescence is held in check with a vengeance. It makes sense, since Cypher is held in such high regard for his talent of completely turning off his emotions and kicking butt on the battlefield, but the Fresh Prince put so much effort into being restrained and humorless he forces us to forget he's a dad, not a commanding officer.
In his first team-up with his pop since "The Pursuit of Happyness," Jaden gets more screen time as the son whose life has centered on trying to live up to the Cypher Raige legend, always falling short and now facing the only test that really matters. The teen does OK as the army brat of the future, capturing Kitai's resentment toward a father who's missed most of his childhood — hopefully not a real issue in the Smith household — but he's got a long way to go before he can make us see him as a true action hero.
In all fairness, even the most rugged kid or adult would have trouble standing up to a world full of drastically evolved animals, extreme climate shifts and other countless hazards of Earth in the fourth millennium, but he doesn't get a lot of points for his numerous attempts to just lie down and die.
A few centuries of scientific progress seems to have given mankind some pretty cool technology, as seen in Kitai's all-purpose suit which changes hues based on the environment he's in — the perilous black indicator seems to be his color — and the Swiss Army weaponry Cypher bequeaths his son for his quest.
Of course, just as many truly stupid designs are prevalent. Are we supposed to believe an emergency shield made of Saran Wrap is supposed to stand up to air that's more poisonous than that of modern-day China?
M. Night Shyamalan doesn't have much of an eye for futuristic technology, explaining why he hasn't ventured into science fiction until now. As a director, he does the best he can in bringing us into this difficult father/son dynamic, in which both must depend on the other to stay alive, a crippled Cypher needing his able-bodied son, and Kitai always having his dad viewing his every move via more cameras than the competitors on "Survivor."
It's Shyamalan's work as a co-writer, adapting an idea for a survival story originally conceived by Will Smith himself, that makes everything worse with an incomprehensible exposition and bungling of the intriguing concept of "ghosting," Cypher's technique for suppressing fear. The element of Kitai's deceased older sister (Zoë Kravitz), a hot topic for both father and son, also smacks of lazy storytelling, but even worse is the way Shyamalan crams in the Ursa, an alien bloodhound which somehow finds itself on Earth along with Kitai — because the Rangers were dumb enough to have it on the ship in the first place.
If only in all their the advanced equipment they had a plot hole detector.
If it were stripped of its futuristic setting and the many other clunky factors, "After Earth" might be more tolerable. The Smiths can't be blamed for trying to make their family project work and they often do create some poignant moments, but Shyamalan's handling is about as useful as a broken oxygen capsule.
The phrase "breathtakingly bad" may be an overstatement, especially considering this is the guy who made "The Happening," yet there must be something along those lines to describe his direction …
Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.
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