Will Smith is one of the last of a dying breed. We used to have movie stars with a capital S, men who studios could count on to open a movie pretty much based on name alone. But the times they are a-changing. Even Tom Cruise isn’t guaranteed box office gold these days, just look at Oblivion and Jack Reacher. But Will Smith has consistently churned out $100+ million takes with very few exceptions. His latest project sees him acting alongside his son Jaden and the results are mixed.
After Earth may be working on a few levels, but it is not a terribly complex film. Jaden Smith plays Kitai Raige (don’t worry, everyone has a stupid name in this film) a young cadet in a military training program. He’s held back from advancing to ranger class on the very day that his father returns home after a lengthy absence. His father just so happens to be Cypher Raige (told you) the badass superstar of the futuristic global military. Cypher decides to take Kitai with him on a routine training exercise, but when their spaceship hits an asteroid field and crash lands on Earth, Kitai has to grow up and face his fears and all those other cliches in order to save their lives.
There’s more to this obviously. Kitai narrates a great deal of exposition in the first 5 minutes, though it was a bit difficult to follow, maybe because of the odd way in which every character speaks in this film. Apparently there was a dialect coach that invented it. It’s not terribly different, but just enough that some words were hard to make out. In any event, we humans destroyed Earth, as we are wont to do, and so we created the global ranger corps to protect us and get us to our new home on Nova Prime. But Nova Prime was inhabited by aliens who can smell the pheromones we give off when we’re afraid (at least I think that’s what he said, it was a little confusing as to whether it was supposed to be that aliens were attacking us on Earth or Nova Prime. This came at the same time as the line about everything on Earth evolving to kill humans. Which makes little sense because we were leaving that planet. But I digress…) Cypher Raige made a name for himself through his ability to ghost, to become invisible to the aliens as a result of a complete absence of fear. It’s a skill that Katai desperately needs since they had brought along one of these aliens for the training sessions, an alien that got loose during the crash and is now on the hunt for human flesh.
As far as the aforementioned levels go, there’s the basic story which is about a young man growing up and coming to grips with his fears and his guilt. There’s the subplot about his relationship with his father and their journey learning to trust each other. There’s also the fairly obvious metaphor for Will Smith having to sit back and watch to a certain extent as his son Jaden navigates the dangerous land of Hollywood. There’s a hint of the “humans are awful and destroy everything good, look how beautiful Earth would be if we were gone” story that we’re all familiar with but it’s never fully explored and quickly gives way to the major plot points. And as fellow critic Matt Patches points out, there may even be a Scientology aspect to the film.
But the movie still stars Will Smith and even though this is a more subdued role than we’re used to from him, the man is still a movie star in all caps. Inherently likable and compulsively watchable, Smith’s sheer charisma takes what could have been a dull role and makes it exciting to watch. The real-life relationship between father and son carries over to the screen and lends emotional weight to the plot which may not have come across with different casting. Jaden, for his part, does OK. He doesn’t really hold his own against the elder Smith, but thankfully they don’t share the screen often enough for it to really matter. Like the movie itself, he’s neither especially bad nor good, he does few things wrong but also does nothing to stand out. Only time will tell as to whether or not his father’s unique qualities have been passed on.
On a technical level, the film scores solid marks. In particular, the sound mix is very lively and engaging. The opening sequences shine the most, specifically the scene where the spaceship encounters the asteroid field. It also looks good, with the beauty and wonder of Earth coming across quite well on the big screen. On the other hand, the CGI is mediocre. While it’s not quite awful, it also pales in comparison to recent achievements like Life of Pi. The score by James Newton Howard is subtle and not overused but also not particularly memorable.
That in itself can be seen as a metaphor for the film. It’s just fine, a decent popcorn sci-fi flick that’s not particularly memorable. It hits every note you know it’s going to hit from the moment they crash land on Earth. It’s a very basic hero’s journey type of story with few surprises, but it’s told pretty well and it’s enjoyable enough to watch, even if you don’t find yourself thinking about it the next day.
The Upside: Smith’s charm, the cinematography and sound design.
The Downside: Forgettable, with some poor CG and a basic plot that offers no surprises.
On the Side: Will Smith has a story by credit on the film.