Jaden Smith’s acting career may not be entirely nepotistic, but he’s clearly growing up in his father’s shadow. As he gets older, he’ll have to stand more on his own, and if After Earth is anything to go by, it doesn’t bode well for him. Yes, this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and that hasn’t implied good things in a very long time, but the wooden, uneven performance on the younger Smith’s part is his own fault.
It all started simply enough: a father-and-son wilderness survival story. Why this had to be placed into an effects-heavy post-apocalyptic setting and injected with shallow, macho posturing I have no idea. But it has been, and we’re stuck with it.
Said machismo is summed up in the movie’s tagline, “danger is real; fear is a choice”. The supposed message being that a really great man (or woman, but that’s largely academic here) can simply ignore their fear and enter a zen state of hypercapability. Evidently Dune didn’t go far enough when the Bene Gesserit emphasized facing one’s fear, letting it flow over and through and past.
It’s also evidently not good enough to simply place young master Smith in danger and show him overcoming his fear; that would require acting, and it’s really not clear that that was an option. No, it must be externalized in the most ridiculously baroque way possible: it’s now a thousand years since humanity fled Earth for reasons that are never exactly clear. They settled on “Nova Prime” — seriously — which was inhabited by big, violent aliens that are blind and deaf, but can literally smell fear. Or maybe these were used as weapons by the indigenous aliens whose planet humanity invaded; this isn’t clear either. Anyway, one Great Man named “Cypher Raige” — seriously — somehow picked up the ability to “ghost”: to suppress his body’s natural fear response and thereby become invisible to these beasts.
So humanity must have had a pretty rough millennium, since Cypher Raige (Smith the Elder) is still around and leading the Ranger Corps that leads and defends the invading human colony. His son, Kitai Raige (Smith the Younger), lives in the shadow of his father’s greatness. He looks capable on paper, but just doesn’t have his father’s chops; he’s undependable as he goes to pieces in the field. On top of that, there’s an older sibling (Zoë Kravitz) who showed promise early on, but died. Cypher clearly misses his oldest, favorite child, and Kitai gets saddled with an inferiority complex. It sounds suspiciously familiar.
Kitai and Cypher are the only two survivors of a Ranger ship which crashes on a quarantined planet — the long-abandoned Earth — and which was conveniently carrying one of those magical fear-smelling things. Cypher is seriously injured, so Kitai must trek about sixty miles to retrieve an emergency beacon in another section of the ship. Not only is there a fear-smeller that may-or-may-not-but-seriously-come-on be out there, Cypher warns that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans” in the thousand years that there have been no humans around. All together now: Evolution Does Not Work Like That.
It’s actually sort of unusual to see a sci-fi movie that’s actively stupid about biology instead of about physics, and the evolution thing isn’t the end of it. The whole thing about fear is also stupid, ignoring all the ways that a fear response temporarily improves certain abilities, and that without it we probably wouldn’t have survived the African savannah. Not to mention the way the explanation, about dismissing the imagination of possible-but-not-yet-realized futures, ignores what we know about cognitive psychology and how our ability to imagine what is not the case is key to all sorts of aspects of human intelligence.
As many glaring scientific flaws as there are, though, it feels cheap to tear apart a story over them alone. What really ruins the story is the macho insistence that a real man feels no fear at all. Couple that with what smells a lot like a family working out its own issues in public to the tune of $130 million. Then top that all with a truly awful, awkward, and mumbling performance by the young lead, backed up by one of Will Smith’s silliest, most uneven characters ever. The whole thing is all but unwatchable.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.