Film review: ‘After Earth’ is better than ‘The Last Airbender’

Will and Jaden Smith get stranded on our postapocalyptic home planet in "After Earth." Credit: Columbia Pictures
Will and Jaden Smith get stranded on our postapocalyptic planet in “After Earth.”
Credit: Columbia Pictures

‘After Earth’
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

M. Night Shyamalan has had it rough the last decade, or as rough as a millionaire hotshot Hollywood director can have it. Scorn has been heaped on his work, a lot of it earned. “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender” are dreadful (honestly, so is “The Sixth Sense”), but even those have a unique, stubborn sensibility all his own. In the future, film historians will likely chide audiences and critics of the present for mistreating an unusual genius. For better or worse, a good deal of Shyamalan’s personality is quashed for “After Earth,” which is perhaps not coincidentally his closest-to-good film since “Signs.”

Yet another post-apocalyptic romp, made in collaboration with the Smiths — that is, Will and Jaden — it stars the former as the amusingly named Cypher Raige, a space general we’re told is “so completely free of fear he’s invisible.” (OK then.) His son Kitai (Jaden) isn’t quite so brave. But as luck would have it, an accident strands them on the long-ago abandoned Earth. Cypher is rewarded with a pair of broken legs, leaving Kitai to man up and trek the fearsome wild to find a MacGuffin.

“After Earth” promises a boy’s adventure on the order of Cornel West’s ‘60s African chase jaunt “The Naked Prey.” It about half-delivers. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” Cypher warns. If only. The scary futuristic animals — slightly-angrier-than-before monkeys, a kind of mega-hawk — are easily avoided, even nice when properly prodded. For a trek into the danger zone, this is curiously light on thrills and spills.

Shyamalan mostly stays out of the way, but he still makes himself known, and not in good ways. For someone who directed one of the screen’s greatest child performances, Shyamalan’s a terrible director of child actors. Jaden, a likable braggart in “The Karate Kid” remake, is only a mite less awkward and declamatory than the kids in “The Last Airbender.”

His father is another story. Stern and taciturn, Will Smith is cast against type, but he’s all the more imposing because he’s forcibly concealing his natural warm spirits. One forever expects him to crack a smile and say, “Just kidding.” He doesn’t, ever, and that tension puts him on list of excellent actors, with Toni Colette and Paul Giamatti, who can make Shyamalan’s films — stiff, heavy, childish and borderline amateurish, if often intriguingly so — seem briefly natural.


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