Critics aren't impressed with either M. Night Shyamalan's directorial work or the Jaden and Will Smith pairing in new apocalyptic sci-fi entry "After Earth" (June 7). The venom towards Shyamalan is strong (Sony all but cut his name from the film's marketing), with Variety calling his film a "non-happening," and the Hollywood Reporter pointing out that the director does little to help 14-year-old Jaden Smith, obviously flailing in a role meant to carry the film. Roundup below.
The last time M. Night Shyamalan tried his hand at a big-budget “Man vs. Wild” episode, with 2008’s “The Happening,” the unseen villainess was none other than Mother Nature herself. In the decided non-happening that is Shyamalan’s latest, “After Earth,” the threats lurking on a post-apocalyptic blue planet include baboons, predatory birds and a giant alien beastie that looks like a rejected prototype from H.R. Giger’s workshop. (At least there are no Tom Cruise clones.) But it’s Shyamalan’s career, and that of producer-director Will Smith, that seem to be struggling for survival in this listless sci-fi wilderness adventure — a grim hodgepodge of “Avatar,” “The Hunger Games” and “Life of Pi” that won’t come anywhere near equaling those juggernauts with the ticketbuying public.
This is the first Shyamalan-directed film on which he's not the sole screenwriter, and in fact it takes a while to discern any trace of the filmmaker's personality in a screenplay credited to him and Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta. The script hits its action beats competently as Kitai copes with marauding animals and dwindling supplies, and works best when the teen is in motion. But Shyamalan is of little help to the actor when Kitai faces internal challenges: Jaden Smith's performance, all furrowed brow and worried eyes, gives us no reason to believe Kitai is made of the same tough stuff as his father.
The pairing of Smith & Smith may have a media-pleasing, passing-the-torch symmetry — Will is 44, Jaden is 14, and they earlier starred together in the terrific 2006 drama “The Pursuit of Happyness” — but director M. Night Shyamalan drains the spark from both their performances. Will’s natural charm is lost in space; in its place is a stern, distant-father manner that makes him as warm as an android (that’s not a spoiler, sadly).
The film's resolution, predictable to any viewer, feels oddly impersonal for a father/son bonding tale both dreamed up and enacted by a father for the son following in his footsteps. Whatever the faults of 2006's "The Pursuit of Happiness," that film employed the bond between the two Smiths much more effectively. One wonders if it might be wise to wait a while before the next pairing.
So count a couple of wins in M. Night Shyamalan’s column: “After Earth” is not one of those movies where you have to keep track of a million characters, each one having some sort of individual, arcane plot significance. It is not reliant on a pre-established property or mythology. At a brisk 100 minutes, the picture certainly never overstays its welcome. It doesn’t have a half-hearted allusion to 9/11 or current global politics, and isn’t scored like a composer with a grudge is doling out revenge one booming crescendo at a time. And thank the God for small favors that “After Earth” isn’t in 3D.
The relatively inexperienced Jaden Smith is asked to carry a movie in which he spends almost all of it by himself, talking to a co-star who isn't there and reacting to special effects that will be added later, which is a task akin to casting a drama club freshman in a performance of Beckett's "Happy Days." Performances aside, "After Earth" is a fairly dreary affair, weighted down with grimness it never really earns and afflicted with sub-par special effects that keep us from being completely lost inside this world… You know you're in trouble when you find yourself feeling sorry for one of the world’s wealthiest teenagers.