After Earth is the sort of bad movie anyone could have made, which is disappointing after the release of three tried and true “M. Night Shyamalan”-encrusted bad movies of the sort that only his holiness could make. Or Kirk Cameron, maybe. But the point is there was a certain personal touch of badness on display, and following that tripartite masterpiece of anti-filmmaking, After Earth is just bad movie leftovers.
At some level, this is because the structure is so straightforward and non-confrontational. A boy (Jaden Smith) and his father (Will Smith) live in the post-Earth world of Nova Prime, Earth having been exhausted of all natural resources and such and such. The father is a highly respected ranger in a peacekeeping military organization of the sort that always seems to show up in movies that need action but want to make statements about killing and not vilify violence by treating it as purposeless. The son is estranged from his father for an accident involving the death of the father’s daughter, but you knew that didn’t you? They crash land on a feral, hostile planet (which happens to be…gasp….EARTH), but you knew that didn’t you? The father is largely restrained by breaking both legs in the crash, and the son has to save poppa by exploring the landscape to retrieve a distress beacon all the way … somewhere not near the ship, but, again, you knew that didn’t you?
The simplicity of the film is its saving grace and its chief disappointment. On the former, it mostly allows Shyamalan to remove himself from that ethereal question of abnormally awful writing (here handled not only himself but by a murderers’ row of script doctors). After a torpid, largely revolting first act that is as thick-on-the-ground and replete with harmful exposition as anything Shyamalan has yet taken part in, the latter portions of the film mostly sedate their fever and resolve themselves to a somewhat functional form of sequence-hoping as young Jaden Smith gamely exhibits no charisma and broods as he fights off the elements and the horrors humanity had let loose upon their home planet.
Shyamalan had spent the better course of the decade prior to After Earth failing as a director as well as a writer, so this sort of “pure cinema” adventure really ought not be a good holding cell for him either. The idea of him framing “adventure” is a question mark at best, and a great shoulder shrug at worst. Astonishingly, he keeps himself above water just enough to not drown, but this doesn’t mean the material isn’t plenty water-logged on its own. Shyamalan mis-read the Robert Johnson story. He long ago wandered to the crossroads and sold his ability to direct a scene with interest and passion, hoping to get a soul in the process (essentially, he decided to become a message movie director). His talent has been wanting ever since. Thankfully, he moves away from the sermonizing here, but the lesser ambitions don’t help him flair at the nostrils and do anything resembling “excite”. Mostly, he’s just stringing along a collage of indifferent nonsense in a mundane, tempered-down key. There are a few showy, freshman visual distractions like a scene where he holds on a long-shot with the camera placed behind a flap that is opening and closing to hide and reveal the action, but these are petty ornaments on a sickly, decaying tree.
Of all the distractions though, none is greater than the disregarded icy chill between father and son, a catatonic attempt at false depth if ever there was one. The only affect of the frosty character interaction is to lull the film into a somber dullness where-in genuine excitement and high-flying old-school adventure is the enemy and a most cumbersome one at that. After Earth is, of all things, a bored film, something a Shyamalan work, even in the darkest depths of its nebulous inadequacy, usually manages to avoid. The director’s cavalier disregard for common sense and commitment to his own warped vision usually induces a fever, but After Earth is nothing if not cold. Nothing about its badness feels special like the director’s previous films. This isn’t anti-inspired badness or haberdashery masquerading as storytelling, but plain old nuts-and-bolts badness. We don’t need to plumb the secrets of its neutered storytelling or smug, detached acting or hokey direction because they exist in a mode of badness that is relatively stable and understandable. They are, essentially, just bad, and “just bad” is something no one wants, or expects, a Grade-A human-condition-perversion-magician like M. Night Shyamalan to be.
So how good is it really? 1.5/5 (a typical Shyamalan struggle, only not as off-putting as some of his recent efforts)
But how “good” is it?: 1/5 (generally a bore, and all the worse because of how middling the badness is)