Review: 'After Earth'

We open with a voice-over, followed immediately by flashbacks. Incredibly, with these bold strokes, "After Earth" announces it will be terrible right from the outset, and woe be upon the person who holds out hope that it will get better after the initial wobbly start. It will not get better, it will only get worse, until you're actively cheering for a teenage kid to get eaten by a tiger (and wanting the tiger to savor every bite). I didn't plan to feel this way, and no one could have predicted the best possible outcome for the film would be the brutal murder of a character one of the Smithlettes was portraying, but you did this to me, "After Earth". You made me root against the good guy, mostly because you made him so incompetent, so repugnant, so unlikable, that you rendered his journey and story arc meaningless. For when is a hero not a hero? When he acts worse than your average guy off the street. "After Earth" stupefies us with nonsense, such little thought and logic went into this idea that it can't even be considered a rough draft, this is a movie almost daring an audience to emotionally detach throughout. For shame!

To explain the threadbare plot shouldn't take particularly long, even though the 100-minute running time of "After Earth" lasts around six years. Will Smith, as the delightfully named Cypher Raige, is a general in a futuristic army. He's human, a descendant of Earthlings forced to flee the planet because "we destroyed it," though the destruction seems to have been a mix of nuclear bombs, pollution, and natural disasters. 1,000 years later, everyone lives on a planet called Nova Prime, where things are pretty peachy except for the occasional Ursa monster, a predator that is utterly blind, able to hunt based solely upon the scent humans make when they're afraid. Cypher is FEARLESS, and thus doesn't secrete the "fear" pheromone, so he's able to waltz up to these Ursas and wallop them with impunity. He definitely gives them the ol' "what for," I tell you. Look here, Ursa, there's a new sheriff in town, and this one can't be smelt.

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Now, set aside your thinking cap for just a moment, the one that says, "well couldn't they wear airtight suits, or make a perfume, or use missiles, or mix fear smells with poisonous gas, or have robots punch all the Ursas, or use drones that existed a full millennium earlier to hunt the Ursa down, all while they snacked in front of a futuristic monitor?" No! Put all of these thoughts right out of your head! "After Earth" has no time for your foolishness, because it's too busy getting Cypher and his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith, clearly typecast as Will's son) together for an adventure. Kitai wants to be a Ranger too, just like his dad, but he doesn't have the "no fear" part down yet, which would make him Ursa lunch, or dinner, depending on the time of day.

Cypher and Kitai (coincidentally the name of my new CBS pilot) are having trouble connecting, because dad is always out stomping around, secreting nothing but machismo and Old Spice. To alleviate the growing distance between them, Cypher brings Kitai along on a training mission, that, you guessed it, goes horribly wrong. They are then marooned on Earth, and Cypher is hurt, leaving Kitai to perform a dangerous life-saving mission by his lonesome. He's got his dad to virtually lead him, using futuristic "Go-Pro" technology every step of the way, but he's going to have to prove he's got the right stuff, or else they are both, gulp, dead meat.

That's not a terrible premise. Or rather, it's not a wholly terrible premise, there are good parts in there, like the father-son bonding, future Rangers, and men who have been named Cypher without any subtext whatsoever. Sadly, as soon as the action switches to Earth, around 20 minutes in, it's all doom from there on out. Little Kitai fights poisonous slugs, a giant bird, tigers, simians, and ultimately, ugh, himself. Along the way he'll have to prove he's every bit the man that dad is, even if dad happens to come off as a complete jerky jerk who raised a son that wouldn't be fit to deliver newspapers on a rainy day. Indeed, Kitai is the kid you'd put in charge if you were working for Team Ursa, he has so many ways to fail that the scouts would label him a "five-fool player" and draft him the first round of the "nincompoop draft".

Yes, Kitai is instantly unlikable, when he's not listening to his parents, he's proving he knows nothing about the world, and when he is tuning into what his father is saying, it's usually just so he can come back with a genius rejoinder such as, "I can do it myself, Dad! I don't need your help!"

So, unlikable hero, a distant and disposable father-son bond, but surely the futuristic aspect of "After Earth" gets in there and salvages this thing, right? Well, no. Not at all. If anything it makes it so much worse, because when the action parts are playing out, riddled with logic problems, you find yourself pining for the quiet stupidity of an abusive dad and his ninny son. For instance, Kitai wears a fancy suit that alerts him to danger by turning black, or to toxins by turning white. Now, whatever you do, don't ask, "well, does it do something else besides turn color, like say put up a force field, or make him faster, or give him medicine, or maybe turn on an emergency jetpack, or provide a distraction to the predator, or camouflage him somewhat?" No! Do not ask these things, for the suit has just turned white, ooooh, how impressive. Why, they've stumbled onto the same lofty technology that the Coors guys use, to tell me when my beer is cold!

Here's another example - the use of spears. Little Kitai Raige (Best band name ever) is sent out to fight thousands of predators with a mutable spear. Oh, it changes shapes, it can become a scythe, a sword, whatever sort of weapon you like, except for the one that would actually help, something along the lines of a machine gun. Can you imagine fighting off a pack of tiger-wolves with a freaking spear?! Or outrunning simians without anything resembling advanced technology? "After Earth" takes place in a time where we were able to figure out light speed and interstellar travel, but any weapon above "Swiss Army Knife" seems to outpace our ambition. That's "After Earth" for you, where nothing makes any sense at all, not the weaponry, the relationships, the antagonists, or the mission itself. It's astoundingly awful.

Thankfully, once you've gotten past the terrible logic and meaningless relationships, "After Earth" assaults you with a complete lack of tension. They are trying to kill this Kitai fellow off every ten minutes, only what are the chances of them doing just that? Especially 25 minutes in, when all the "action" commences? Everything in "After Earth" is arbitrary. Kitai must get to a transmitter because he needs to transmit. Cypher must not leave the ship himself because he's hurt, no one else an be around because they've only got the one camera crew and so on, and so forth. He has exactly enough oxygen to finish the mission! Safety, each evening, is the exact distance he could plausibly reach! Cypher can man the computer interface 24/7 because he never needs bathroom breaks or food! And so on, and so forth, into the cold receding distance of irrelevance.

The level to which "After Earth" is a catastrophe is amazing, but what's even more impressive is the lengths everyone must have had to gone to for such an epic level of failure. Everyone involved, from director M. Night Shyamalan all the way down to Jaden Smith is culpable, and truly capable of so much better. "After Earth" shouldn't be seen on this planet, and if we ever discover new ones, habitable ones, we should take steps to make sure it's never shown there either, just in case.

SCORE: 1.2 / 10

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and thinks Shamalan's best movie is actually "Unbreakable".