After Earth (2013)

Is it too late for M. Night Shyamalan? Has he finally reached a point in his career where there’s simply nothing he can do to redeem himself? The man is still a very talented filmmaker and always has been, but has his rampant unchecked ego causes irreparable damage to his reputation, so much so that even when he does good work, people will still hate it, just because his name is on it?

I ask this question because After Earth is easily the first film Shyamalan has made in more than a decade that genuinely works. It’s not a masterpiece, but as an old school slice of science fiction, it’s a solid B effort. Shyamalan mostly avoids the trap that he so often falls into of trying to be needlessly clever with the narrative (meaning, no, there’s not some big twist at the end), Jaden Smith gives a decent if a tad forced and child actor-y performance, Will Smith is refreshingly restrained for a change, the pacing is good, and there’s some effective tension. Overall, it’s a perfectly serviceable father-son drama/wilderness survival suspense-thriller. And yet, the response has been overwhelmingly negative thus far.

To be fair, it’s easy to see why everyone was preemptively down on After Earth before release. Shyamalan has spent the better part of his career doing his best to alienate audiences, with his vanity-driven films with embarrassingly pleased-with-themselves narratives and laughable execution. The man really has no one to blame but himself for his fall from public favor.

It’s also hard to ignore the other infamous ego in the room. While liked more often than not, Will Smith has also had more than his share of questionable career choices, and is well known for demanding creative control on everything he appears in, and generally displaying a rather inflated opinion of himself. Not an entirely undeserved opinion, mind you; exceptionally talented people have earned the right to pat themselves on the back a little bit. But it does tend to grate on the nerves of outside observers from time to time.

So when you combine two personalities that people often find annoyingly smug with the fact that the project stars the kid of one of said personalities, it’s not hard to see why people were expecting another trainwreck vanity project. And with regards to the latter part, they were not entirely wrong. The story is courtesy of Will Smith, who hasn’t exactly written himself into the humblest of roles: Space warrior and ex-Youngblood member Cypher Raige, utterly fearless monster-slayer of the future, who must train his son (played, of course, by Smith’s real life son Jaden) to become an equally fearless monster-slayer. But outside from that, nothing about the movie seems unduly pleased with itself, and if you ignore, or have somehow remained unaware of the parties involved and their histories, it’s unlikely to bother you.

There have also been rumors that the film is some kind of Scientology metaphor in the vein of Battlefield Earth. This suspicion was reinforced by the vaguely pretentious theme of the film that doubles as its tagline: “Danger is real, fear is a choice.” Knowing little about Scientology, I couldn’t possibly guess whether this actually resembles any of that church’s beliefs. But given the infamous failure of Battlefield Earth and most people’s negative gut reaction to anything involving movie stars and Scientology, it’s no surprise this might elicit some sneers. But it’s worth pointing out that Smith has merely studied Scientology, and does not actually practice it, and besides that, whether or not you agree with whatever message or ideas a film conveys has nothing to do with the film’s actual quality. Just because Birth of a Nation is one of the most racist things ever put to film doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it a good racist movie, as hard as that is to accept. Personally, the notion that After Earth is putting forth sounds like complete bullshit to me—I’m reasonably certain fear is an instinct, which is sometimes our best tool for determining danger, especially in survival situations—but that doesn’t mean the film is bad for disagreeing with me.

If you’ve yet to see After Earth, I urge you to approach it with an open mind. It’s not quite the career redemption I keep praying we’ll eventually get from Shyamalan, but it’s a well-made, frequently engaging sci-fi flick that really is worth your time.

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  • Mark Brown

    Can’t say I’m utterly convinced after all the negative reviews, but I guess I’ll give it a go once it reaches Netflix.

    • James Elfers

      This movie is seriously flawed apart from the nepotism and questionable director. Humans have abandoned earth for roughly a thousand years in the movie yet HUGE life forms that seem to have no other desire than to feed on humans have evolved in that time! Not even creationists are as loose with the improbabilities that scenario congers up. How could they evolve in such a short time? If they had never encountered people before why would they prey upon them? How did they get so intelligent so quickly? Just like a creationist misusing the bible and the fossil record, Smith and M. Night have messed with evolution in a way that is laughable. The original idea for this movie was a coming of age story set in rural, unoccupied and very dangerous and desolate areas in Alaska. THAT movie would have made much more sense and would have cost a fraction of After Earth’s budget, but Smith wanted a bigger and bigger canvas for his son, Not only is it nepotism its the kind of creeping nepotism jades with hubris which is actually far worse than your boss’s nephew getting a promotion ahead of you. Often that nephew fails and you end up having to step into his shoes to clean up after him. No one will EVER tell Will Smith that his son just isn’t cutting it as an actor. Daddy will just keep sticking him in movies until he clicks or is out of money. With the kind of wealth that Will Smith has it looks like we can prepare ourselves for a TON of films starring his kid.

  • Cristiona

    “Cypher Raige”? Really? Wow.

    • I know. Sounds like a 90’s comic book character, doesn’t it? Hence the Youngblood joke.

      • The_Stig

        I genuinely like Will Smith. I just don’t get why he feels compelled to constantly shove his no-talent offspring down our throats.

        At least the character wasn’t named Adamantium Raige.

        • Because they’re his kids. Talent or no talent (and I think it’s a bit soon to tell whether or not Jaden has any), a father is not the most objective judge of his children.

          • The_Stig

            Jaden’s got some potential I suppose (I’m still holding The Kung-Fu Kid against him), but if he ever wants to be taken seriously as an actor he’s going to have to professionally distance himself from his dad and actually earn roles. I just don’t see that happening. Willow’s a lost cause though.

          • He’s gotta tricky path ahead of him. He’s certainly not the first person in the industry to get into the family business. Drew Barrymore, Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie, Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, Jamie Lee-Curtis, the list goes on. Jaden’s situation reminds me of the bile that Sofia Coppola got in her first role, people acted like she singlehandedly ruined Godfather III (she didn’t). Eventually she found her calling as a director. So yes, you’re right, eventually Jaden’s going to need to break away from his father’s shadow, but let’s remember: the kid’s FUCKING FOURTEEN. It’s a little early to start expecting him to navigate his own career.

          • The_Stig

            The difference between Jaden and Drew Barrymore, Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez is that those people have talent, and while the family connections certainly helped they didn’t depend on them. They succeeded in spite of their lineage, not because of it.

            I ask you, why shouldn’t his age matter? Nobody’s holding a gun to his head and making him suck in movies. There are plenty of actors in Hollywood even younger than him working twice as hard (that is to say, working hard). Hell, Drew Barrymore was only one year older than Jaden is now when she bought her first apartment (Granted, her drug use and partying made Lindsey Lohan look like a rookie and she’d already been in rehab, but still). So no, it’s not early to start expecting him to navigate his own career, because it wouldn’t be the first time. It certainly wouldn’t hurt Jaden to pursue roles in films his dad doesn’t have a producer credit on. I don’t want to hate the kid. I honestly want to see what he can do. I want him to surprise me. I want him to have that breakout performance that totally changes my mind about him, and I want him to do it on his own.

          • $36060516

            The other difference (at least as far as I know without researching it on IMDB and Wikipedia) is that they didn’t jump into being the star of big-budget, heavily-promoted movies with little experience.

  • $36060516

    One of the reasons for the negative reviews (haven’t and won’t see it myself) may be that people resent Will Smith’s son being given a top billing movie star career seemingly just because his parents are famous. Since most people have to work harder than that in much less glamorous jobs, they may have negative feelings about contributing to the kid’s golden ticket.

    • Mark Brown

      Indeed. It seems likely too that the reason Will Smith is so restrained in this film, is so as to avoid upstaging his son.

    • I understand, but once again that has nothing to do with the actual movie. If it bothers you that Jaden Smith gets to have ridiculously wealthy & influential parents that can put him in the movies and you don’t, that’s your problem. The industry runs on connections and luck. It’d be great if everyone magically got what they deserved on sheer determination alone, but that’s not the world we live in. So if people are calling this a bad movie out of pure jealously and spite for Jaden Smith, then that’s incredible petty.

      • $36060516

        “If it bothers you that Jaden Smith gets to have ridiculously wealthy & influential parents that can put him in the movies and you don’t, that’s your problem.”

        I don’t spend that much time thinking about it, to be honest. What I was referring to was not specifically the fact that his parents are wealthy and he has opportunities that many don’t, but that term “nepotism” exists because a large number of people, including myself, tend to distrust the qualifications of such people until such a time as they’ve transcended the circumstances of their birth through their achievements. It may be petty, but it’s a fairly undeniable fact of social life. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the critical backlashes against the HBO show “Girls” and the singer Lana Del Rey or not, but popular sites such as Gawker have gone to town on these entertainers due to the fact that most of the actresses and the creator of the show are the daughters of famous connected New Yorkers and Lana Del Rey’s music career was financed by a wealthy father. I would not write a negative review myself based on nepotism, but it seems to influence the level of venom in many reviews in the media.

  • MephLord

    I’m with Joshua here. Will Smith isn’t going to do anything to stifle any career prospects for his son, who at this point is a pretty good teenage actor. And Jada Pinkett-Smith probably won’t do anything either if Jaden is, at this point, committed to being an actor. I wouldn’t put too much pressure on the kid or his parents for the choice because they haven’t been in anything absolutely bad

  • This movie is as hilarious as all of M. Night’s other comedies. We don’t get Bruce Willis arguing with a woman who clearly can’t hear him, but we do get an asteroid field that hits you so hard you don’t know what star system you’re in.

  • midnightcyn

    I’ve never been impressed with Will Smith’s alleged talent; he plays every role the same. The son is not talented, and it’s not a matter of waiting to see if he improves; he wont. Daniel Radcliffe showed more talent in the first 20 minutes of the first Harry Potter film than Jayden ever will. There are actors who start out as children, and then there are child actors–and the latter never get better.