By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — After seeing After Earth, you’ll realize that your Take Your Child To Work Day will never measure up.
Will Smith and his real-life son, Jaden, with whom he co-starred in The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006, play father and son in this science fiction action-adventure drama.
It’s 1,000 years after cataclysmic events caused by humanity then forced humanity to escape from Earth, which has been declared unfit for habitation, by evacuating and rebuilding society light-years away on the planet Nova Prime.
Interplanetary ranger and celebrated army general Cypher Raige (Will) returns from an extended tour of duty to his estranged family, hoping to become a more involved father to his 13-year-old ranger-in-training son, Kitai (Jaden).
But when an asteroid storm damages their small vessel, they crash-land on unfamiliar and dangerous Earth.
Because Cypher is critically injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey through uncharted terrain to recover their rescue beacon and get help, exploring the savage, inhospitable planet on his own, a planet now ruled by evolved animal species — to say nothing of the intimidating alien creature that escaped during the crash.
This is one of the rare occasions when director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Happening) — whose stock seems to have dropped precipitously in recent years as he shifted from darling to punchline, bottoming out with The Last Airbender –- is not directing from his own script. His work is proficient but not exactly inspired.
What Shyamalan is doing these days is leaving his reputation for big narrative twists and surprises behind, and directing in a much more straightforward manner.
That’s not necessarily an improvement, but it’s a probably a good idea, all things -– including audience expectations –- considered.
His film gets off to a strained and awkward start, then rights the ship as Shyamalan reminds us with inventive and resourceful camerawork of what a talented technician he is.
But he includes far too much in the way of obviously synthetic CGI creatures, seriously undermining credibility on several occasions.
The screenplay (originally titled “1000 A.E.”) by Gary Whitta and Stephen Gaghan, from a story developed by Will Smith -– as a starring showcase for his son — along with Shyamalan and Michael Soccio, is surprisingly and unnecessarily humorless as it tells its linear story, and is sometimes on the childish side.
As producer, co-writer, and star, Smith is essentially sharing this two-hander with Jaden, who gets the majority of the screen time.
Smith the Elder turns in a restrained, minimalist performance -– it almost seems he’s trying not to steal any focus away from his son — in a way that drains most of the fun from the piece, but it’s certainly a fresh approach for the characteristically exuberant leading man.
As for Smith the Younger, he more than holds his own in a demanding role that sometimes borders on the sadistic in what it puts his character through. But given his plight, our rooting interest in the late going should be a good deal higher.
So we’ll evacuate 2½ stars out of 4 for this respectable science fiction adventure, albeit one that works best as a kidflick, from M. Night Shyamalan.
Neither a triumphant The Seventh Sense nor a dispiriting The Last Earthbender, After Earth is a mixed bag.