The sub-mediocre summer on the film front continued for me as I opted for “After Earth” starring Will and Jaden Smith in what may very well be one of the worst science-fiction films ever produced on this planet or any other for that matter. If you happen to be suffering from severe insomnia, this movie may offer a quick cure.
Please do your best to stay awake while I tell you a little bit about the plot. After a series of environmental problems drove all human life from the Earth, the survivors ended up on a planet they named Nova Prima, and the film actually takes place 1,000 years after the mass exodus.
The hero of the movie is Gen. Cypher Raige (W. Smith), who commands an elite group known as The Ranger Corps charged with maintaining the peace on Nova Prime, where the major enemy is the S’Krell. This is a designation for nasty alien monsters that want to take over Nova Prime, and they use Ursas to fight their battles. For the uninitiated, Ursas are gigantic predators with the ability to track down their prey by detecting fear. The only way the Rangers could defeat the Ursas was by sublimating their fear through “ghosting,” a method developed and taught by Cypher.
Now Cypher had two children, but an Ursa killed his daughter, Senshi (Zoe Kravitz), and his son, Kitai (J. Smith), blames himself for her death. In attempt to absolve himself of guilt and earn the respect of Cypher, Kitai decides to become a Ranger and follow in his father’s footsteps. Unfortunately the Rangers reject his application as the result of his shortcomings, and this leaves him devastated because he knows his father has no respect for him.
Now Cypher is set to retire, but he must make one final voyage before doing so, and in an attempt to patch things up between father and son, Katai’s mother, Faia (Sophie Okonedo) talks her husband into taking the boy with him. And thus the two of them set off on what ultimately becomes a nightmarish trip.
Actually things are going pretty well between Cypher and Katai until their ship is so severely damaged in an unexpected asteroid shower that they crash into Earth. During the crash, the ship breaks in half, and Cypher suffers two broken legs. Now there are two emergency beacons on board, and these are the only way of contacting anyone on Nova Prime. Unfortunately the main one is irreparably damaged, and just where do you suppose the backup beacon is? Why of course it’s in the part of the ship that broke way during the accident, and now Katai must put his life on the line in an attempt to locate the missing section of the ship and recover the precious beacon.
Kitai’s ensuing quest is a daunting one because he must cope with everything from precariously low levels of oxygen to humongous vicious baboons to a poisonous leech to a giant condor. Throughout his perilous journey, Kitai is able stay in radio contact with his father, who provides constant advice and guidance.
Now if you go to see this film expecting a great sci-fi adventure, forget it because this movie is about as exciting as roomful of paper napkins. Kitai’s trek to locate the missing beacon is at once seemingly endless and insufferably boring. The dialogue between the father and son is flat and uninspired, and we spend far too much time merely watching Kitai wander around aimlessly.
I think the film is an attempt at a coming-of-age story crossed with a lesson in parenting, and it just doesn’t quite work. In the film’s production notes, J. Smith explained his perspective of Katai.
“Kitai feels a lot of pressure to step into his father’s shoes. Also, Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death — she died years ago in an attack that Kitai thinks he should have done something to stop — and he thinks his dad blames him, too. So the relationship between Kitai and his father is broken, and Kitai is trying to fix it; he’s trying too hard to get his father’s respect and approval.”
Also in the production notes, the senior Smith offered his insight into the meaning of the film.
“What I thought was really interesting about this film was that it’s huge in scope, but it comes down to a simple idea that every person in the audience can relate to: it’s a father and son story. I think that’s what audiences will really connect with — seeing the father try to connect with the son, to teach him, with life-or-death consequences. Every parent knows when his or her child is lying to them because they’re scared of something. And every parent has a different way of dealing with that. In ‘After Earth,’ we have a father trying to command and control his son from a distance, but at the end of the day, once your child goes out of the house, you’ve taught them all you can — they have to learn the rest on their own. For me, in this movie, the extreme landscape makes these parent-and-child relationships huge, life-threatening.”
I’ve always had the utmost respect for the elder Smith as an actor, and when he teamed up with Jaden for “The Pursuit of Happyness” back in 2006, the two of them were great together. But in this film both of their performances are completely lackluster, and neither one of them seems the least bit interested in the respective parts they are playing.
Also, you would think that in this age of such advanced technology for cinema there would at least be some interesting special effects in a science-fiction film, but that is not the case here. The visual aspect of the movie is every bit as mundane as the rest of it. As weak as it is, however, “After Earth” isn’t as bad as “The Hangover 3,” and so at least it avoids a score of zero and instead earns an unimpressive four.
I sincerely long to bring you some good news from the film front, and the next movie on my list is the highly anticipated “Man of Steel.” Plan to join me back here next week to see whether or not Superman can restore at least a modicum of respectability to what so far has been a completely disastrous summer film season. We desperately need a motion picture that soars like a bird or a plane.