Pop your nerd hats on for a moment (oh come on, you know you have one somewhere, you are reading Best For Film after all) and think back to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Don’t worry, no comparisons between After Earth and Star Trek will (or can) be made here, unless you wish to state the obvious that the latter destroys the former in every conceivable category. What you should recall is a brief moment early on when a copy of Moby Dick is visible on a shelf. This is a fantastic reference – it perfectly frames the motivations and decisions of the waxen-chested and supremely-nasty Khan. After Earth, too, slips in references to Moby Dick on multiple occasions, albeit a little more overtly – Jaden Smith just says it over and over again, “Hey Dad, I’m reading Moby Dick. SERIOUSLY DAD, MOBY DICK“.
Except that in After Earth, Moby Dick means nothing. It’s literally just what the little shitpants is reading. Who is the ‘Ahab’ in After Earth? What is the ‘whale’? I make this point because it acts as a microcosm for the rest of the movie: it tries to be slick, it tries to be clever, it tries to have some sort of deeper message, but no one – not the viewer, not the actors, not the director M. Night Shyamalan – has any clue what this message might be.
The film grates from minute one – an unnecessary flash forward sequence ruins any tension for the first third of the film. It’s cheap, it’s horrible, it’s also further compounded by one of the laziest exposition voice-overs by Jaden Smith in the history of cinema. Oblivion had a fairly poor opening too, but that had the grace of being relevant. Nothing in the opening scene, indeed the first third of the film, has anything to do with the other two thirds. We don’t need to see stock footage of the Japanese tsunami and burning tires as an explanation of why we left Earth. We don’t need weird, disjointed talk about freaky aliens and “ghosting” and how much you love your goddamn father, Jaden Smith, start the fucking movie already.
Skipping over how Cypher and Kitai Raige (that’s seriously their names) actually arrive on Earth (it involves a “graviton storm” and what feels like a rejected plot development from an episode of Babylon 5), it actually gets a little interesting when Jaden Smith starts running around. Will Smith gives a decent, if entirely misplaced, performance as the injured dickhead father, although honestly all he does is throw into sharp relief just how unlikable his son is.
Although After Earth is billed as a “freaky zoo” film, akin to Avatar, it falls far short. To count the number of “mutated monsters” there are in the film… poorly CGI’d baboons, one single turd-like leech, some pathetic cougars, a profoundly stupid eagle and the alien that looks lifted from Starship Troopers. That’s it. Everything else is just Jaden Smith’s unendurable bitching.
When the end draws near (After Earth is a thankfully short 100 minutes) it’s so obvious what is going to happen that you almost feel as if you’ve seen this film before, and the memories are all rushing back to you like a repressed childhood memory. As soon as you realise that Jaden Smith is going to turn into a psychopath (OH SORRY, SPOILERS OR SOMETHING) you may as well walk out the door. Don’t forget your refund.
After Earth is pretty terrible. It’s a lazy, lazy film. There’s no ingenuity, or even much love and care behind it. One get’s the feeling that M. Night Shyamalan has finally buckled under after years of abuse and just given up. Predictable, boring, occasionally infuriating, After Earth cannot be recommended to anyone, not even fans of the sci-fi genre. There’s no deeper message here, no literary or historical allusions, not even a basic moral, other than perhaps “being a sociopath is just dandy”. It’s not the worst looking film, no performances are truly terrible (although Zoë Kravitz does give “terrible” a lascivious look or two), but why bother with this? Don’t give this film your money, it’ll only encourage M. Night Shyamalan, who after this paltry effort looks as though he’s ready to retire in disgrace.