M. Night Shyamalan is no stranger to directing big, juicy lemons, and his latest squirt in the eye of good taste — a futuristic survival in the wilderness story about a boy who confronts his deepest insecurities on a planet overcome by blobs of CGI that can smell his fear — is the latest in a batch of particularly onerous duds.
Shyamalan’s tipping point was 2002’s Signs, the Mel Gibson alien invasion curio in which Joaquin Phoenix donned a tin foil hat and a young girl regarded glasses of water with extreme caution. There was something dirty in them, she said; something that could not to be trusted.
But if anything funny was in the water, Shyamalan was the poor sod who guzzled it down and returned, cupped hand Oliver style, for more. If one can excuse the screwy ambition of The Village (2004) as an interesting experiment in circumventing expectations, ret-conning an entire story on the basis of a final, outrageous revelation, the same cannot be said of the trio of stuffed turkeys that followed: Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010).
Until now Shyamalan has had only himself to blame, as writer/director of all his films, for their often colourful failings — from Signs’ automobile death crunch (memorably skewered in Scary Movie 3) to Mark Walhberg’s conversation with a pot plant in The Happening.
After Earth is a little different in that numerous artistic assassins, Murder on the Orient Express style, have played a role in turning the knife, many of them lifetime members of Will Smith Corp. Smith wrote the story Shyamalan and Gary Whitta fleshed out. Smith also produced it, along with wife Jada Pinkett and her brother Caleeb, and stars alongside son Jaden, for whom After Earth was clearly constructed as a vehicle.
The film is based 1000 years after humans scuttled off to another planet (ala Oblivion) and earth’s surface is now a treacherous wilderness. After strained emotional foreplay between legendary solder Cypher (Will Smith) and his under-achieving but well-intentioned son Kitai (Jaden Smith), the spaceship they are manning crashes onto earth, leaving Cypher with a broken leg and Kitai the duty of travelling cross-country to find a place to signal for help.
Using digital devices Cypher sees what Kitai sees and provides ongoing counsel — pained to be out of the action, like Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 — simplified to various iterations of “don’t panic” and, later, more despairingly: “give up.”
Smith and Smith Jnr., without each other’s on set presence, emote into a CGI enhanced mist, projecting into thin air what might have provided tangible interactions between father and son.
While Kitai battles the occasional computer effect and walks (there is a lot of walking) across various pretty landscapes, Will Smith channels the viewer’s downwards trajectory: his face droops to the floor, growing increasingly drowsy and disinterested as each set piece is sprayed with a digital tan and trampled over.
It’s tempting to interpret After Earth as a metaphor for what happens when a famous actor’s child follows family footsteps and enters the harsh reality of their own career despite possessing virtually none of the requisite talent, but that runs the risk of implying this madness actually stands for something.