Admit it: You were secretly hoping for After Earth to be a trainwreck. It's M. Night Shyamalan's first movie since the oh-god-my-eyes Last Airbender. It's Will Smith trying to jumpstart his son Jaden's career. It has a ridiculous backstory. All signs pointed to another MST3K-worthy outing. Except After Earth is... actually okay.
(There will be some spoilers in this review, although After Earth is sort of a spoiler-proof movie, because the plot is ultra-simple and free of any twists or tricks.)
So yeah, we were all primed for After Earth to be an epic fail. And in fact, it's a reasonably solid movie. Not great, but definitely not awful. It's a simple father-and-son story, told with reasonable economy in just over 90 minutes. There's some dodgy acting and some contrived plot devices, but After Earth sets out to tell a simple story and pretty much succeeds.
In After Earth, Will Smith is a decorated war hero, named General Raige. (Which admittedly makes him sound like a Star Wars villain.) He and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) go on a trip together, and crash-land on the long-since-abandoned Earth, which is full of deadly mutant creatures. Plus there was a killer alien held captive on board their ship, and it's possibly gotten loose. General Raige is injured, so it's up to his hapless son to walk 60 miles to where the tail section of their ship crashed, and retrieve a distress beacon so they can get rescued.
That's basically it — Kitai has to walk from one place to another, without getting killed, and it's a coming-of-age thing as well as a father-son bonding thing. And ultimately, it's about him trying to learn to live up to his father's legacy, but more on that in a moment.
In the midst of summer movie season, which is crammed with overcomplicated epics that try to pack in a million fireworks, After Earth is meat and potatoes. Everybody involved with this film has made movies that vastly over-reached, and this time around they're clearly keeping their ambitions in check. Like the protagonist in this film, they're just trying to get from A to B in one piece.
Would After Earth be more entertaining if it were, in fact, either so bad it's good (like Last Airbender) or actually great (like some of Smith's and Shayamalan's earlier movies?) Quite possibly. As it is, though, the movie is never boring, and I never felt like it was wasting my time. Probably a lot depends on how much you can invest in the main characters, played by the Smiths.
This is a movie about the fact that you expect this movie to suck
To a large extent, every movie carries on a dialogue with your expectations, and a lot of movies are way better if you go in expecting the worst. I went into After Earth expecting a disaster, and was pleasantly surprised — but maybe After Earth is a weird case. I get the impression some people went into After Earth expecting another Last Airbender, and then convinced themselves that's what they saw. Having suffered through Last Airbender, I can attest that this film is no Last Airbender.
So do our expectations shape our movie-watching experience, or can a movie shape our perceptions, independent of what we expected? After Earth is an interesting case study, and it also comments metatextually on this very issue — because the main theme of the film has to do with how your expectations for the future shape your present experience.
In After Earth, the killer alien that was on board the crashed spaceship is called an Ursa, and it was engineered to hunt humans. The Ursa is blind but can sense human pheromones — in other words, it can smell your fear. The reason why General Raige is such a famous hero is because he was able to feel no fear, so he became invisible to the Ursa. This is known as "Ghosting," and it's the thing his weakling son needs to learn how to do, in order to survive.
But as the movie goes on, General Raige explains to his son (via comm-link) that the key to suppressing fear is not to think about the future at all. Because fear is all to do with your expectations of what might or even will happen — and thus, if you shut out all thoughts of the future, you can't be afraid. (And yes, that gets summarized in the phrase that becomes the movie's terrible tagline: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice.")
In order to see this movie at all, you had to grapple with your future expectation that you would end up sitting through a clusterfuck of Shyamalanian proportions. And thus, it seems sort of appropriate that the film keeps talking about anticipation and what it does to your present experience.
And General Raige's philosophy is an intensely nihilistic one, because it discards hope along with fear. It's sort of the dark underside of living in the moment. The most subtle thing in this film is the way it hints at why learning to "Ghost" might come with a terrible cost, even as we root for Kitai to achieve it.
There is plenty of stuff to make fun of
Realistically, a lot of people are going to see this movie on Netflix at three in the morning, and turn it into a drinking game of some sort. And there's certainly some stuff worth drunkenly mocking, or using as an occasion to take a shot. (I just didn't think that stuff necessarily doomed the film. Your mileage may vary.)
For example, you could take a drink every time Will Smith barks at his son to "take a knee," which happens a lot.
You could pound a shot whenever a computer screen in front of Will Smith pops up with a readout that basically says "PLOT POINT ALERT" and then spells out some plot point, in a way that no real computer interface ever would.
You can chug whenever Jaden Smith's bodysuit changes color in response to the level of danger around him, which seems like a weird suit design. Or when it turns him into a flying squirrel.
Every time the movie shows another bit of the recurring flashback where Jaden Smith's sister puts him into a terrarium to protect him from a monster, swig from the bottle. Etc. etc.
And a lot of the middle of the film revolves around CG mutant animals, in a bit of a Life of Pi pastiche, which I found pretty fun but which might be a bit too goofy for you.
There's also a fair bit of dodgy acting here and there in the film — Jaden Smith is basically fine, because he's playing someone who's way out of his depth and thus his somewhat wooden performance comes across as his character struggling to react appropriately. (Except for one scene, which requires the younger Smith to emote a lot, and nearly does wreck the entire film.)
Plus the normally great Sophie Okonedo (Liz Ten from Doctor Who) is playing General Raige's wife — and I think they wanted her to play a saintly wife and mother, but she just seems heavily medicated.
So yeah, there is a fair amount of clunkiness here and there, but I can put up with a certain amount of that if a movie seems to have a real story to tell, and is telling it in a sincere fashion, without frills. And a lot of this film's storytelling energy rests on the shoulders of Will Smith. Which is a very good thing.
Will Smith is a movie star
Will Smith basically single-handedly saves After Earth, and reminds you why he's one of the world's few remaining movie stars. In the sense of his face on a poster selling tickets, and in the sense of carrying a movie. After I walked out of this film, I was trying to decide why I basically liked it in spite of some pretty glaring flaws — and I kept coming back to Will Smith's performance.
In After Earth, Will Smith is playing probably the most unlikable character he's ever played. (Although I haven't seen Seven Pounds, or the one where he's getting other dudes laid.) Cypher Raige is basically a total dick, who tramples on his son's psyche and is completely shut down emotionally. He's stiff and rational, to the point of acting like a Vulcan. And he's so obsessed with military protocol, he enforces it at the dinner table with his wife and son. Every time you think General Raige is going to open up or show some affection, he acts like a tool instead.
In one or two flashbacks, we learn that Cypher was more affectionate with his daughter, who's dead, and he has never had much time for his son.
But even though Smith père is playing a cold, emotionless character, his performance is not lifeless. He lets just enough emotion show through that you're never in doubt that stuff is going on beneath the surface. He's also such a likable actor that you can't help forming an attachment to General Raige, even as you keep realizing what a megadick he is. And Smith also conveys, through his body language and his confident diction, why everybody looks up to him and sees him as the ultimate badass.
And again, given that the central question of the film is whether Kitai Raige has it in him to be like his father, Smith's performance has enough of an edge that you're left wondering if that would be a good thing — without the film ever asking that in so many words.
(And meanwhile, Kitai is carrying around his father's power-sword, which is shaped like a not-at-all symbolic phallus most of the time, when the blades are retracted.)
After Earth is basically Daddy Issues: The Movie, which ought to be the worst thing ever. But something about Will Smith's steely performance, coupled with his son's fumbling one, made it click for me, on an emotional level. The father-son relationship is the core of the movie, and it worked for me. I'm not saying it will work for you, and it definitely won't work for everyone, but it worked for me.
All in all, this is a movie that sets out to tell a simple story — albeit one with a certain amount of emotional complexity, largely thanks to Will Smith. And although it flirts at times with becoming a terrible B movie, it has a strong enough core to become a good B movie instead.
A really bad film is usually about excess, one way or another — film-makers try to soar, and go into a tail spin. Instead, After Earth stays grounded, and manages to tell a pretty decent story.