After Earth

After Earth has flopped. Badly. Will Smith wanted to make a film expressing to the world, through thin sci-fi allegory, how difficult but also rewarding he finds it sending his son Jaden out there, alone, into the Hollywood star factory so that Jaden can make his own mistakes and learn from them and become his own man; while simultaneously providing Jaden a ready-made, pimped-out, famous-dad-featuring vehicle that ensured that his son would have to do none of those things. This is a film about Jaden Smith finding his own voice that, by it’s very existence, keeps Jaden from doing precisely that. No surprise, as a summer audience-pleaser, this didn’t work. Some are calling After Earth the worst film of all time. So Jaden may need to do some soul-searching on his own after all.

Look, I’ll go to bat for this film, at least a little. After Earth is nowhere near as entertaining as last year’s undeserving punching bag John Carter was, but it’s nowhere near being one of the worst films of all time either.

The marketing here was a perfect storm of failure – an unproven star, a blatant case of nepotism, a failed promise of lots of “your favorite movie star Will Smith,” and a director who is so many miles past “struggling” the studio basically refused to acknowledge his presence. Which is too bad because M. Night Shamalayan directs After Earth with a workmanlike flair and the film, apart from bad CGI, is atmospheric and attractive because of Shamalyan’s good eye.

Nepotism issues aside, the elder Smith is fine too, and he kind of makes After Earth worth it. The marketing overpromises him as a co-star, and it seems like a flagrant foul to sap Will Smith, one of the world’s most charismatic men, of all his charm, forcing him to play a fun sponge dad who condescends to his teenage son every chance he gets, but… and this is a big but… even stuck in a chair, speaking in a monotone, brows furrowed at the world around him, Will Smith is still a magnetic presence, commanding your attention and your sympathy.

This trait may not have been inherited by his son…

While Will keeps you glued to the screen even when he does nothing but bleed dramatically, Jaden has almost the exact opposite effect on an audience – no matter how much Jaden Smith does, and he does a lot, you can’t help but want to turn away from his panting, struggling, frail frame. It seems so mean to say, but it’s true – while Will magnetizes, Jaden repulses. It’s too soon to tell whether Jaden Smith completely lacks his father’s inherent charisma (or, put more simply, can’t act). Fact is, we should never have been offered an opportunity like this to discuss (and dis) his movie star chops. Most young people are done the favor of never being put on the world stage at 14, never offered up for so much scrutiny at so raw an age; and those that are, those child stars who find quick and enduring success, at least don’t have to live up to biggest-movie-star-on-the-planet dad, sitting in a nearby chair, scowling commandingly.

Will Smith, who conceived of this story and is a producer as well as a co-star, thinks he’s doing his son favors by providing him carte blanche to any blockbuster he wants and padding the stats with his box office sway (didn’t help here) rather than sending Jaden to some acting classes (and Will could afford some great acting classes). He’s not. This film’s main issue is that it begs the audience to see that charming “young Will Smith” glint in Jaden’s eye, and it doesn’t do this by letting him sparkle in a supporting role or by playing equally and romantically off a great female lead; After Earth puts Jaden Smith front and center, searching desperately for the gravity only a leading man can sustain (and not just any leading man, but a Smith!), and it never backs off, which is a big ask for just about anyone, and an impossibility for a middle schooler! Even young Will Smith was a seasoned musical and television and indie film performer before he was offered up to the masses as the next big cinematic thing.

And so, alas, that glint is never there. Jaden sulks and pants and panics and runs, and he even shoots off a “hip and cool” one-liner once or twice (just like Dad did in his movies with aliens), but he never does so without seeming like Shamalayan and dad are just off-screen telling him when to shake and when to shiver. And since 70% of After Earth seems like a particularly harsh grounding, it can never rise above what it is – not that bad.

D+