May 31, 2013



AFTER EARTH:  Not Even For Free – The Smith Family In Outer Space

In AFTER EARTH, Will Smith plays Cypher Raige, an emotionally austere father who withholds affection from his son because of his doubt that the boy is capable of walking in his own celebrated footsteps.  It’s such a bizarre decision for a man to play such a role opposite his own real-life son (Jaden Smith, as Kitai)–from a story that Will Smith himself originated, in a movie that he produced and in which he cast himself–that it’s hard not to sniff some kind of psychodrama oozing out of the edges of the story.  (It’s as if Meryl Streep decided to reboot Mommie Dearest as a star vehicle for herself and Mamie Gummer.)  Unfortunately, that whisper is all that’s interesting about After Earth.

No superstar of his generation has done less with his prestige and clout than Smith.  Actors as disparate as Tom Cruise (Magnolia), Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction) and Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love) have made an effort over the years to stretch themselves in small, unusual films that might not have gotten made without them, but in the past dozen years, Smith has interrupted his parade of franchise-ready spectacles only for the straight-down-the-middle Oscar bait of The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds.  His choice of projects is so safe that he’s reportedly considering follow-ups to Independence Day, Hancock, Bad Boys and yet more Men In Blacks.  In recent years, he’s turned his energies toward establishing a family dynasty, with 12 year-old daughter Willow soon to be seen originally scheduled to star in a modernized Annie and 15 year-old Jaden, having already been given a franchise with The Karate Kid, placed in this one as well.  There’s something … monarchical about it all, as though movie stardom was something like a royal title that could be passed down from generation to generation.

He does Jaden no favors with After Earth.  The story is so frail to be downright skeletal.  A thousand years from now, mankind has had to flee Earth after the environment has been destroyed, and resides on a new planet.  The chief predator is something called an Ursa, a CG creation that roars and snorts and looks like a thousand other CG beasts of the past few decades.  The Ursa finds humans by literally smelling their fear pheremones, and only Cypher Raige is so devoid of fear that he’s invisible to the creatures and can kill them at will.  (In our current world, having no trace of emotion in the face of mortal threat would also make him a sociopath, but enough of that.)  Barely pubescent Cypher insists on reacting to stimuli like a human, earning general contempt for his manhood, and Raige decides to take the boy with him on a training mission.  But their spacecraft is blown off-course, and ends up–you guessed it–on Earth, where–you guessed it–the boy has to prove his mettle, finding the homing beacon a hundred miles away in the dangerous atmosphere and learning to conquer his emotions and be worthy of his father.  Also on that spacecraft:  an Ursa.  The final showdown of the movie is so obvious that there might as well be a clock in the bottom corner of the screen counting down the minutes until it arrives.

In order to give Kitai his proving ground, his father is injured in the crash, so after the movie’s first half-hour, Will Smith is basically Mission Control to Jaden, barking out commands when he’s not connecting his own ruptured arteries.  Jaden has to hold an hour of After Earth virtually on his own, which would be a challenge for a much more experienced and skilled actor than he is, and he’s simply not up to the task.  All he can do is register stress, fear, determination and occasional rage, then cycle through them again and again in a hard-working but unengaging manner.  His father, meanwhile, reminds us of what little there actually is behind the legendary Will Smith charm that lights up his usual roles.

It’s taken this long to even mention that After Earth is directed by M. Night Shyamalan (he also co-wrote the script with Gary Whitta, from Smith’s story) because that’s how disposable his work is here.  As a filmmaker, he’s proven himself to be a one-trick pony, and he exhausted that trick a decade ago.  His work on After Earth, coming after The Last Airbender, confirms that he’s very bad with CG, with some of the shoddiest looking creatures and extended landscapes to be seen in such a big-budget motion picture.  Action sequences also don’t bring out his best.  (It doesn’t help that the visuals Cypher gets from Kitai’s high-tech suit never make any sense–supposedly they show whatever Kitai is seeing, but they never manage to show him anything important.)  The small-scale, character-based tension of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (and to a lesser extent Signs) are far behind Shyamalan here.  Other technical credits like the photography by Peter Suschitzsky and score by James Newton Howard are professional but not outstanding.

Even though After Earth runs only 100 minutes (including long credits), it’s so unexceptional that it becomes a bore before long, devoid of surprises (as soon as Cypher tells Kitai that he has more breathing capsules than he’ll need, it’s just a matter of time before he runs out of them) and a deadening pace.  It’s a measure of After Earth that apart from giving the movie a title, the fact that it takes place on Earth adds absolutely nothing to the story; the planet, post-apocalypse, is so nonsensically different from current Earth that it could be anywhere.  The fact is as pointless as everything else in this tiresome would-be tentpole, which brings no credit to the Smith movie kingdom.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."