‘After Earth’ is a disappointing sci-fi story

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‘After Earth’ is a disappointing sci-fi story


Jaden Smith, left, appears with Will Smith in a scene from “After Earth.” [AP/NEWSIS]

LOS ANGELES - Humanity’s home planet hardly merits the name-check in “After Earth,” M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi survival tale whose shipwreck action could (with the exception of a scene where our hero scrawls a crude map over Lascaux-like cave paintings) take place on any old life-supporting globe in the cosmos. The disappointingly generic film, which strands a father and son (Will and Jaden Smith) on earth a thousand years after a planet-wide evacuation, will leave genre audiences pining for the more Terra-centric conceits of “Oblivion,” not to mention countless other future-set films that find novelty in making familiar surroundings threatening. Will Smith’s presence, not just as co-star but as originator of the story, seems likely to carry box office receipts beyond the benchmark of Shyamalan’s previous picture, the wretched “The Last Airbender,” but those hoping for a franchise should navigate elsewhere.

Plans for such a franchise seem to be afoot, with filmmakers reportedly having written “1,000 years of back story” for these two characters and their society. They must be saving an awful lot for comic-book and videogame spin-offs, though, as the film squeezes its millennium-long setup into a few short moments of voice-over introduction.

We learn that, having ruined our environment, humans decamped en masse to Nova Prime, which would have been a nice place if not for the monsters that had been bred to kill humans. (By whom? Buy the comic book, kid.) Those beasts, Ursa, are blind, but can smell the pheromones humans release when afraid. When a member of the United Ranger Corps, the elder Smith’s Cypher Raige, found himself able to suppress his fear, he was suddenly invisible to the monsters. Harnessing this “ghosting” technique, he became a hero in the still-raging war.

What we don’t learn in the too-quick intro is how all humankind came to speak in the same accent, most reminiscent perhaps of New Zealand’s - one that suits none of the cast very well, and makes Jaden Smith’s voice-over hard to follow.

In any event, Cypher Raige comes home between long campaigns to find his son Kitai unsettled, struggling to live up to his legacy. He decides to take the boy along on an interstellar voyage, but the ship is thrown off course by a gravitational storm and must land on the nearest planet. A crash landing on earth leaves three survivors: the Raiges and the Ursa specimen they’d been transporting for use in training aspiring ghost-ers. With both legs badly broken, Cypher must coach Kitai via camera phone as he makes a 100-kilometer trek to find the chunk of wreckage that can save their lives.

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: 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.

Will Smith, meanwhile, is as hobbled as his character: Forced to sit in a chair, slowly bleeding to death as he impotently observes his son’s various perils, Cypher is a man of action who can’t act; Smith is a charisma-powered performer made to hide his charm behind a stern military demeanor. (When Kitai enters his first dangerous standoff, faraway Dad offers a stoic non sequitur: “Recognize your power: This will be your creation.”) One wonders if it might be wise to wait a while before the next pairing - letting Jaden Smith, like Kitai Raige, come into his own before asking him to share a screen meaningfully with one of Hollywood’s biggest personalities. AP
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