I've seen the phrase "vanity project" thrown around in a lot of "After Earth" reviews. I guess when Will Smith, the biggest movie star in the world, writes a story for he and his not-especially-dynamic son Jaden to star in together, that's a vanity project. But can a vanity project also be a passion project? If it can, "After Earth" is.
Watching this movie, you just sense that Will Smith (possibly for the sake of vanity) desperately wants his son to follow in his footsteps as the world's greatest movie star and badass alien-killing space ranger. By what must be sheer coincidence, "After Earth" is about the elder Smith's character, Cypher Raige, testing his son Kitai (Jaden), and grooming him to possibly follow in his footsteps as he nears retirement.
The friction between the real Smiths and their characters is fascinating to ponder. And director M. Night Shymalan still knows how to milk a monster-lurking-just-out-of-frame sequence for every last drop of queasy unease. The problem, unfortunately, is that whether or not Kitai passes Cypher's test, Jaden doesn't pass Will's, at least not yet; at this point, the kid just isn't his father, particularly in the charisma department. Meanwhile Will's Cypher is a stern, emotionless absence -- a cipher, if you will (WHOA). Once their spaceship crashes on a very hostile future Earth, the entire film is just these two bland characters on a bland planet on the run from bland CGI critters. It's not enough.
Still, I honestly didn't think "After Earth" was that bad. Many of my colleagues, though, did. At 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, "After Earth" is currently doing worse with critics than "The Happening." You read that right; worse reviews than the movie about Mark Wahlberg running from the wind. Which means it's time for another Barbed Wire.
Here are ten great lines from ten brutal reviews of "After Earth:"
"M. Night Shyamalan is branching out, coming up with new ways to make bad movies. His plan must be to exhaust all possibilities, so as to eventually come full circle and make a good one by accident."
"Is 'After Earth' the worst movie ever made? Maybe not; there's always 'Battlefield Earth' to remind us how low the bar can go."
"As Will Smith coldly instructs him to feel, to root in this moment now, to master his own creation, I felt the purest horror I ever have at a Shyamalan film: What if this is what Jaden Smith's life is actually like?"
"To explain the threadbare plot shouldn't take particularly long, even though the 100-minute running time of 'After Earth' lasts around six years."
"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."
"You'll spend much of your time waiting for it to be after 'After Earth.'"
"What we have here is a Will Smith, devoid of humor, charm and screen time, waiting in the car while his kid does the driving."
"This could have been a thoughtful movie about conquering fear, as Kitai has some tragedy in his past he needs to work out, but instead it's watch out for that giant bird! That'll be $9, thanks. Enjoy your show."
"The parental interest is admirable, especially Will's thoughtful decision to downshift his own acting so as not to upstage his son. Will hasn't been this immobile since he was poisoned by a jellyfish in the calamity called 'Seven Pounds.'"
"Eleven years and several progressively more dreadful movies after 'Signs,' director M. Night Shyamalan would be lucky to get a gig directing traffic. His work on this reported $150 million vanity project manages to generate no suspense or excitement. Only yawns."