After Earth isn’t so much a Will Smith vanity project as it is a brand initiative, with Jaden Smith’s acting skills being surgically crafted while simultaneously conditioning the public consciousness to accept him as a legitimate star. Produced by the Smith family, and co-written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, After Earth is a modest but competent effort. That’s saying a lot, given its obvious agenda and that it could have easily been torpedoed by any of its fistful of “worst ideas in Hollywood” elements: A story ‘envisioned’ by a leading actor. A producer banking a film featuring his own 13 year old kid as the star. Choosing M. Night Shyamalan to write and direct a month after The Last Airbender came out. It could be Smith knew it would be hard to attract a talented director, and though Shyamalan has proven he can direct, being vulnerable after a string of duds, would be willing to join a big budget gamble to redeem himself.
After Earth is a simple boy alone in the woods survival adventure. The story seems somewhat underdeveloped, but Shyamalan is earnest in his delivery, and scenes are edited to allow enough time for dramatic weight without overly boring us. Mostly. One interesting point made in the film, without beating us over the head, is that while humans had to abandon earth, 1000 years ago, it’s done quite well without us. Bison, apes, birds, flora – all flourish and evolve in our absence. This evolution establishes the threat premise: earth isn’t just fine without us, it no longer wants us.
The back story is sufficient but not elaborate, and family discord provides slight additional weight to the seriousness of the situation. CGI is mostly very good but strangely inconsistent. Some drama isn’t written with any technical skill at all, which can push more sophisticated views away. The elder Smith breaks his leg, and somehow loses 8 inches of a major artery near the break. This proves life threatening if not repaired in, oh, 12 to 36 hours. Thankfully, a piece of rubber tubing is nearby which he is able to insert (without anesthetic) to bypass the missing section. Also, it seems that despite being 1000 years in the future, they only have pain killers that cause extreme drowsiness – on military space vessels. Seems a bit anti-convenient.
On the other hand, normally, being the son of a popular actor doesn’t automatically mean equal talent. One thing that’s clear in this film is that Will Smith is extremely thoughtful and deliberate in crafting his son to be a capable and successful actor. Lloyd Bridges may have been a great actor but some of his surly gravitas is absent in his sons, though they seem to have established themselves well over time. Jaden Smith evokes every hallmark Will Smith manner, twitch, and intonation. Sometimes during the film it seems we’re watching a Will Smith Master Class in Acting, with Jaden as his pupil. While the younger Smith wont have a chance to develop these skills organically, the film is much better off thanks to his intensive education.
Given a target audience of 12 year old males, After Earth is more Hardy Boys mystery than Grisham novel, and while the corporate agenda behind the film is clear, it’s still a competent effort that avoids some glaring potential pitfalls.