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So, who wants to see a Will Smith summer blockbuster?  Yeah, me too.  With hits like Independence Day, the Men In Black series and I, Robot, there are worse gambles one can take than opting for a Will Smith summer jam.  That public goodwill was apparently behind some Hollywood geniusí idea to make what would ostensibly be a sure-fire sci-fi adventure and then sub out the charming and charismatic Big Will for his exceedingly less charming and charismatic son, Jaden.  While giving short shrift to his 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, I hadnít necessarily written the teenager off; I just didnít want to see him in more roles that were simply handed to him because he was Will Smithís kid.  After Earth is more proof that talent, charm and likability arenít necessarily hereditary and no matter how much you try to cram it down the audienceís throats, nepotism is never a nice thing to swallow.

Itís a millennium since the world as we knew it has ended.  Human civilisation has moved to other planets and faces new challenges as earlier homesteaders have throughout history; including not being eaten by things bigger than themselves.  Special military troops protect humanity from creatures called Ursa that literally smell a personís fear and use it to target their next meal.  Cypher Raige (?!) is a special breed of soldier who has mastered his fear so as to be invisible to the monsters, an art called ďghostingĒ and is a hero amongst his men.  His son Kitai works hard to live up to dadís massive legacy, pushing his training before heís actually ready.  Cypherís time at home between missions is minimal and increasingly fraught with tensions between himself and his growing boy.  Kitai is brought along on one of Cypherís routine expeditions in the hopes of some father-son bonding, regardless of the fact that thereís one of those freaky, people-eating monsters on board.  Of course this is the exact perfect recipe for disaster and soon after takeoff, a space storm knocks the stuffing out of the ship and forces an emergency landing on what was once Earth with only Cypher and Kitai as survivors of the crash.  Cypher is effectively out of action with multiple leg fractures, leaving the untried Kitai to retrieve an electronic beacon left in the broken aft of the ship.  To reach that section, he must cross miles of wilderness, inhabited by creatures his ancestors only used to see in zoos, including that that pesky, fear-sniffing people-eater.  Kitai heads off armed with dadís multi-purpose knife-thingy, a communicator built into his mood ring catsuit that connects Kitai with his fatherís guiding voice and just enough oxygen to get him to the other side.  What could possibly go wrong?

I loudly excoriated the mess called The Last Airbender that M. Night Shyamalan was responsible for.  I wasnít alone in thinking the once-promising filmmaker had lost his mind in awful and inappropriate casting and slapdash storytelling.  With so much to recover from, I wondered why Shyamalan would want to involve himself in such an obvious Smith family dog and pony show as After Earth?  Perhaps he reckoned Will Smithís name on anything released in the summertime would equal big audiences?  I can see the intention of telling the story of a father and sonís broken relationship (Who also have the death of an older sister and their respective culpabilities between them), but it is presented in a very ham-fisted and clumsy way with dialog seemingly written by a third-grader.  One might think that the action is the thing, but the set pieces in After Earth arenít enough to sustain either momentum or belief.  Jaden Smith has the very small and slight build of someone even younger than his own fourteen years, which doesnít sell the he-man athletics we see him achieve.  Nor does it make a lot of sense that any civilised space military would promote a fourteen-year old to field missions. (Moment of unintentional comedy: Cypher finds his disappointed son sulking over not having been made a Ranger and tells him, ďYouíre not ready.Ē Yeah, maybe cos heís fourteen!)  The most damning example as to why Jaden Smithís just not right for the role is that fact that his only facial expression throughout the entire film is that of someone about to burst into tears, crying for his mommy at any moment.  We know the character has doubts, but weíre also supposed to believe heís one step away from becoming the Ranger that he so wants to be.  I donít remember Jaden Smithís face being so devoid of affect in 2006ís The Pursuit of Happyness, or in 2010ís The Karate Kid.  It actually impacts our perception of the character and how invested we are in Kitaiís journey, and if Jaden Smith looks unmoved, why should I be?  How is it his acting talent seems to be more limited as he gets older instead of growing?  Smithís voice over in the beginning is also odd.  Iím not sure if the actors were instructed to use some kind of accent, but young Smithís readings are like garbled mush, vastly in contrast to Smith Sr.ís clear, almost regal intonations.  As the only two survivors of the shipís crash are both named Smith, thereís not a whole lot of suspense because we know the likelihood of killing off either one is zero.  No matter how many times a warning of a red herring injury to Cypherís leg is flashed before us, itís an emergency that never happens.  The creature is a mess, too.  Entirely computer generated and resembling some amorphous blend of Alien and a Wampa, thereís not a lot of scary there, either.  Itís a very weird thing to write that the one grace of a Will Smith summer blockbuster was the amazing scenery.  The most intriguing aspect of After Earth was the world we are presented some one-thousand years after humans mess it all up (Ö somehow. Donít look too deep for the details on this one.).  Using the jungles of South America to portray the Eden that the planet has reverted to without those tree-chopping, ozone-killing human termites in the way is the most subtle and resonant message in After Earth.  Nature has regained its balance in our absence and the land is overrun with wild animals; some evolved and much larger than their earlier ancestors.  For a bit, the movie becomes a CGI Land That Time Forgot, again with no actual danger to the characters, but the chase scenes through the lush trees and hurtling down raging waterfalls are at least nice to look at.

Flat, tepid and unengaging, After Earth is simply middling stuff that mightíve been more interesting as a video game. There has to be one like it that exists already, the premise is so elementary.  Outside of the lovely cinematography - and much of that computer generated - thereís precious little to recommend After Earth.  The heartwarming father-son subtext is too clumsy and clichťd to care about and the action part of this action movie is canned and listless.  However, if you ever wanted to see a Will Smith summer blockbuster where Will Smith does nearly all his acting sitting down while his decreasingly talented, miscast and out-of-his-depth offspring does all the work, this is the movie for you.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 31st, 2013

 

 

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