In hindsight, one of the most hilariously blown calls in modern movie history is the 2002 Newsweek cover that proclaimed M. Night Shyamalan as "The Next Spielberg." (Small wonder that magazine no longer exists.) To be respectful of the dead for a moment, Newsweek did make that comparison after Shyamalan was coming off the commercial hot streak of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. It would take the next batch of movies -- starting with The Village (although I'd argue that Signs is the real... um, signpost of his decline) and continuing through The Last Airbender -- for the director's actual cinematic forbearer to reveal himself. And Shyamalan's latest effort, After Earth, only further confirms what many have long suspected: far from being the next Spielberg, Shyamalan is actually the next Wood. As in Ed Wood, the pioneering Z-movie schlockmeister, who (if you believe the Tim Burton version) had an enthusiasm for filmmaking matched only by his ineptitude.
Wood (or, at least, Johnny Depp's interpretation of him) probably would have adored After Earth, which has the same mixture of high-minded ideas and stunningly incompetent execution that have earned Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space a place in bad movie history. But the blame -- or the credit -- for the awfulness of this father/son vehicle for Will and Jaden Smith can't go to Shyamalan alone, as he was brought in as a hired hand. Rather, this is an all-in-the-Smith-family production, with the Fresh Prince himself having originated the project (and he gets a "Story by" credit to prove it) and cast the now-teenage Fresh Prince Jr., while also enlisting his wife and brother-in-law to join the producing team. One can only assume that he hit upon this idea after the Smith clan's book club reading of Dune, so much does After Earth borrow from Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi classic.
Take the basic premise, which fast-forwards a thousand years into the future when humanity has abandoned a devastated Earth and settled out amongst the stars. Most of the population has settled on New Earth -- or as it's referred to in the movie "Nova Prime" -- where they live alongside an indigenous population of bug-like alien monsters who don't take too kindly to these immigrants. To more effectively combat these rejects from Starship Troopers, the soldiers (or "Rangers") are trained in the art of "ghosting" -- ridding your mind of fear. Because, as the
Bene Gesserit Ranger saying goes, "Fear is the mind killer a choice," one that will be your end if these fear-feeding creatures catch even a whiff of you having wet your pants before marching into battle. One of the leading "ghosters" is revered Ranger general Cypher Raige (Big Willie), the fearless warrior every cadet aspires to be, including Raige's own son Kitai (Lil' Jaden). Due to a past alien monster-related trauma, however, Kitai just can't climb over the fear hump that his old man cleared with apparent ease.
Just when he's ready to give up, the kid gets a crash course in ghost-training when the ship carrying him and Cypher crash-lands on Earth, which in the century since mankind's flight has evolved into a place where everything on it -- plants, animals, the weather and even the air itself -- is deadly to its former occupants. With his father incapacitated, Kitai has to traverse this unfamiliar planet and retrieve a beacon that will signal a Nova Prime rescue party. And while he doesn't meet any giant sandworms in his travels, he does tangle with a pack of futuristic wolves, a toxic snail and a giant eagle before facing off against his final obstacle -- a fear-sniffing alien passenger on the ship that has since escaped.
This may sound vaguely exciting on paper, but boy oh boy is it dullsville onscreen. Indeed, one of the primary disappointments about After Earth is that it's not terrible enough. Compared to the wackadoo ramblings of The Happening or the stark-raving silliness of Lady in the Water, this film is a more generic failure, one that leaves you checking your watch instead of staring transfixed at the screen waiting to see just how much worse it can possibly get. The boredom sets in early on, with an opening sequence establishing the futuristic status quo that's unhelpfully narrated by Kitai in the same flat monotone he uses throughout the rest of the movie. (Whatever charm the younger Smith had as a child actor has entirely worn off; his performance is so stiff, so labored, so incongruous with his surroundings, it supplants Sofia Coppola's infamous Godfather III turn as the worst example of onscreen nepotism. His usually reliable father isn't much better, to be honest, falling prey to the fallacy that if you're playing a character who lacks a key emotion like fear, he must also lack a personality.) That's followed by tedious attempts at generating parental drama on Nova Prime, which has all the atmosphere of a particularly budget-conscious Star Trek episode. The pace picks up somewhat once the action shifts Earthside if only because Kitai spends so much time racing from place to place. But he can't outrun the fundamental lack of compelling conflict at the center of the narrative, which is based around the age-old rebellious son/absent father dynamic that looks especially puny when set against this large-scale post-apocalyptic backdrop.
Not that After Earth's depiction of Earth's future is all that grand and imaginative, with Shyamalan presenting the place as one giant forest populated by poorly computer-generated animals. (For a big-budget spectacle, the production values are surprisingly chintzy throughout.) While it's not in the text of the movie, I explained away the director's lack of creative vision by thinking of After Earth as a sequel to The Happening in which the environment finally made good on its promise to drive away mankind and reclaim the planet. But that explanation doesn't account for the movie's clumsy staging of both the action (and, for that matter, the non-action) sequences and its low-stakes dramatization of a high-stakes scenario, which indicate that Shyamalan's filmmaking skills have actually regressed since his Sixth Sense days. (Don't go in looking for one of his trademark surprise endings, either. What you see is exactly what you get.) Once regarded as a director whose work could pack movie houses, he now oversees movies that would be laughed off the Syfy channel. And that's a twist few people at the time of that Newsweek cover saw coming.
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