After Earth (film review by Frank Ochieng).

The practice of nepotism in Hollywood — as in other areas of industry — can be a mixed bag of sorts. On one hand, who would not want to take advantage of a handmade opportunity and seize the golden moment for loved ones if given the chance? On the other hand, favouring your own party for a perfunctory-driven project may end up doing more harm than good in some cases. The proof, as they say, is almost in the pudding.

In filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s slight and scattershot sci-fi spectacle ‘After Earth’, one-time box office bad boy Will Smith is given the green light to deliver a fantasy-driven vanity vehicle for himself as well as his chip-off-the-old block offspring Jaden in a derivative futuristic yarn about father-son bonding, survival and sacrifice.

After Earth - 1st trailer for new Will Smith movie.
After Earth.

Clearly, ‘After Earth’ is deemed a celebrated family affair for the Smith clan (the story was conceived by Will Smith) as it is a pseudo-ambitious meditation in the futility of humanity and familial relationships. Awkwardly probing, ‘After Earth’ feels like a cinematic homework assignment for Smith’s teen-aged charge Jaden with Shyamalan’s requested presence as the hired tutor catering to the movie’s arbitrary, surrealistic vision.

The positive outlook: ‘After Earth’ does have an imaginative scope that feels wondrous with its visual vitality courtesy of contemplative set designs, polished cinematography and hypnotic color-coated schemes. Shyamalan’s (‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Signs’, ‘The Village’, ‘The Happening’, ‘The Last Airbender’) flat direction, clunky pacing and anemic action-oriented sequences are inconsistent for a space opera destined to capture the escapist rush of a manufactured summertime blockbuster. Frankly, the film’s suffocating murkiness robs Shyamalan’s narrative of any vibrant spark or impish pop.

The premise involves a decorated military commander named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his estranged son Kitai (Jaden Smith) as they become stranded on a hostile stretch of unfamiliar terrain when a freakish asteroid storm damages their aircraft. Considered heroic and legendary in his exploits as a revered officer, Commander Raige now wants to take on the role as devoted family man and try to reconnect with his 13 year-old kid Kitai. Soon Cypher will have to rely on the resiliency of his boy when he is injured badly in the cockpit. Kitai must scout the dangerous region and search for help in order to rescue his banged-up father. Naturally, Kitai’s trek into the unknown and untested landscape is his opportunistic manner in redemptive strides to a) seek out the approval of his accomplished yet wounded warrior Daddy Dearest and b) take on the daunting task of walking in his proud papa’s footsteps as an instinctively brave soldier.

It is important to know that both the Raiges exist in the aftermath of an Earth that was decimated one thousand years ago by severe ruination that led humans to flee the problematic planet. As of now, Nova Prime has become the reimagined home for mankind to prosper onward in existence.

Although adventurous largely due to the atmospheric paradise that Shyamalan creates with flowing rivers, robust waterfalls, exotic wild animals and feisty birds, scenic forests, majestic mountains and expansive blue skies, ‘After Earth’ struggles mightily to knit together an intriguing sci-fi saga that registers with all the stimulation of a television test pattern. The flimsy screenplay by Shyamalan and co-writer Gary Whitta does not do ‘After Earth’s stillborn execution any tremendous favors. Wooden dialogue, pretentious and unidentifiable accents and a sub-plot that exposes an abstract ‘enemy’ source known as the Ursa — all are aimlessly tossed about without any solid conviction.

Surprisingly, both Smiths are drained of the expected charisma and energetic cheekiness that one might expect them to collaboratively demonstrate in a so-called pulsating popcorn pleaser. Will’s Cypher is reduced to monitoring Jaden’s Kitai as he nurses two broken legs while the teen traveler wanders in a toxic terrain that is deceptively hidden in a picturesque setting.

Sadly, Shyamalan continues to oversee shoddy showcases that are uneventfully laced with knuckle-dragging moodiness despite lucid imagery and a knack for occasional animated eeriness. ‘After Earth’ is deliriously dull and its clichéd take on the coming-of-age ritual concerning one youngster’s soul-searching methods for capturing his father’s consideration under cataclysmic conditions feels synthetically realised.

Is there something inherently wrong with a media megastar handing his privileged prodigy a start-up movie career on a silver platter in the form of a glossy big budgeted sci-fi showcase? The answer is ‘yes’, especially when it is a lifeless fantasy fable such as the transparent ‘After Earth’.

Next time, Will, you might want to try and bless your treasured tyke with an expensive pet hamster instead.

After Earth (2013)

Sony Pictures
1 hr. 40 mins.
Starring: Will Smith. Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz and Jaden Martin
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Science Fiction/Action & Adventure/Fantasy
Critic’s rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)