By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“After Earth” is a simple (some might say, simple-minded) film with complex baggage.
Let’s start with the star package: Will Smith and his teenage son, Jaden.
Nepotism is a tricky thing, almost insidiously so. Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, have long ago proved their devotion to family. Remember when they left the Oscars to be with their sick daughter?
Their son, Jaden, has wanted a movie career for some time now. The first time I saw him on screen, he was uncomfortably paired on stage with Justin Bieber in the documentary “Never Say Never.” Their interaction — or rather, lack thereof — came off as disastrously inappropriate, overlaid with the moneyed whiff of a behind-the-scenes deal. The pair seemed wary of each other, as if they both knew all they had to do was make it through this one performance and that was that.
The next time Jaden surfaced — at least in m consciousness — was in an abysmal and unnecessary re-make of “The Karate Kid.”
Re-doing the film isn’t some sort of original sin, — except that, now, the only version of “Karate Kid” making the cable/Netflix rounds, is Jaden’s. And while he is impressive when he does martial arts, the rest of the film (and his performance) is either forgettable or mildly annoying.
All of which brings us to “After Earth,” as expensive a showcase as a doting father could buy for his ambitious son. Will and Jaden play, yes, a father and son who crash-land on a planet that turns out to be Earth (this is in the future, but don’t expect any iconic last images a la “Planet of the Apes”).
The plot, according to IMB, is more or less this: A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher (Smith, Will division) injured, Kitai (Smith, Jaden division) must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help
That’s a lot better than I could do. And yes, the movie is just about that straightforward: a badly hurt dad whispers advice and commands to his resentful son (Dad’s an ace; kid’s a failure)
True, Smith the Younger is faced with some perilous encounters — bad bugs, bad giant eagles, bad hyena/tiger thingies. But, given the timbre of the previews, it’s all surprisingly tame. More suitable, say, for a parent and a 12-year-old than the Blog Boys who typically slaver over this kind of stuff.
And that, folks, is this picture’s kiss of death. It’s being strenuously marketed as a sci-fi action-thriller that “Ain’t It Cool” fetishists (or their younger brothers) will want to see five times.
At the very least.
But it’s not. It’s the 2013 equivalent of a Disney-type adventure circa 1964. “In Search of the Castaways” or “Mysterious Island” or something like that. Yeah, there are some heart-pounding parts, but compared to the sort of stuff that regularly rules this particular demographic, “After Earth” is positively amiable.
Please understand. I’m not saying this makes it a cruddy movie (though it’s not very good). Actually, I wish there were more pictures like this available for the market too old for early Harry Potter and not really old enough for, say. “300.”
Side Note: The rating is PG-13, which, to me, generally translates as 10 to 16, possibly with a parent.
Anyway, it’s essentially up to Jaden to carry “After Earth” and he simply isn’t up to it. Then again, I’m not sure who would be. This is the sort of film in which, when a character looks at a map, said map is helpfully marked with everything our guy has just gone through. This may not sound especially iniquitous, but think of it this way: for no apparent reason, a spotted wild hog and her piglets trot into a gorge…and, sure enough, the next scene has Jaden studying a cave map helpfully marked with something like Spotted Pig Gorge.
Which brings me to the other reason “After Earth” is such a loony misfire. Three words…or rather, two words and an initial: M. Night Shyamalan. Yes, the wondrously self-loving one-hit-wonder (“The Sixth Sense”) has slipped back into movies behind the protective screen provided by Smith and Son.
It has been fourteen years and about a half dozen movies since “The Sixth Sense” and time has not been kind to M. Night.
If you liked “The Last Airbender” or “The Village,” “After Earth” may be exactly the movie you’re after.
But somehow, I doubt that.