Po-faced sci-fi adventure starring Will Smith and son
It can be interesting to watch the placing of credits on posters. Usually it's the star of said feature with their name emblazoned above the title, but some directors move up to take that top spot. There's a tipping point when their directorial vision is suddenly considered the main selling point, the reason the punters are flocking to the cinema. M Night Shyamalan is a perfect example. The Sixth Sense, and its big twist, thrust him into the limelight as an intelligent, edgy director to watch. He followed it with a series of interesting quirky films - Unbreakable, Signs, The Village - that were all unmistakably the work of one director with a singular world view. They also did good box office. At first Lady in the Water felt like an uncharacteristic stumble, then The Happening happened - one of the most derided films of recent years - and Shyamalan's stock fell almost overnight. Which is why it might come as a surprise that After Earth is an M Night Shyamalan film. His name is conspicuously absent from the posters (unless you check the small print), instead they are going with the proven clout of Will Smith.
Set in the far future, pollution has forced the human race to abandon Earth, setting up home on the distant planet of Nova Prime. Unfortunately, they are set upon by living alien weapons that can smell fear. On a routine excursion a space ship crash-lands on Earth and only a father and son (Smith and his real life son Jaden) are left alive. Smith Sr is injured and must guide his teenage boy through the hostile terrain to the emergency rescue beacon. In the intervening years the planet has become more harsh: the air is toxic, plummeting temperatures each night can freeze you to death in minutes while the flora and fauna is more aggressive. The animals (including baboons, eagles and big cats) that Smith Jr encounters are bigger, meaner and nastier than ever before.
Basically it's a big epic take on a damaged father-son relationship. The son must learn to face his fears while the father must accept compassion. But the whole set up feels contrived: Jaden's journey feels too rote, and his constant complaining and anguished expression never really convey the rigours of his arduous journey. He just looks like a sulky teenager asked to tidy his bedroom rather than setting out on a journey that will change him forever. The lashings of very obvious CGI don't help, and even with the constant peril it all feels kinda dreary. Something a big budget sci-fi blockbuster should never be.
Will Smith must share some of the blame (he came up with the story) but After Earth isn't the film that will rehabilitate Shyamalan, exhibiting all his worst habits. Most notably it takes itself far too seriously, wasting Will's natural charisma and easy going screen presence.