Pointing an accusatory finger at the work of M. Night Shyamalan seems almost like shooting fish in a barrel at this point, so far has he fallen from the heights of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but to have to lay the blame for his latest travesty After Earth on a figure as beloved as Will Smith is really quite troubling. However, considering this and Smith’s previous film Men In Black 3 occupy the bottom of the cinematic heap for me in the last two years, it’s hard not to worry that a spectacular fall from grace similar to Shyamalan’s may await the once untouchable box office behemoth.
For After Earth is unquestionably Smith’s film (he is even given a story credit), a vehicle to push not only his son Jaden’s Hollywood agenda but allegedly other, perhaps more nefarious ideologies (more about that below) in front of the cinema going masses. Shyamalan’s name, most likely at the behest of the studio given his toxic reputation, is all but absent from the film, and even his regular cameo is either non-existent or so brief that I missed it completely. What results though is a movie so devoid of any narrative or stylistic drive that feels like it was in fact directed by no-one at all, and you have to ask whether he should have been given a little more rope so at least there would be some level of authorship, for better or worse.
After Earth is essentially a two hander with Smith Senior and Junior as the lone surviving father and son team crash landing on Earth an indeterminate number of centuries into the future, long after our species have abandoned the the planet made toxic by our own carelessness. I think. Maybe there was an alien invasion, but that might have happened on another planet. It’s hard to tell, so terribly does the film lay out the backstory.
Anyway, Smith Senior, a literally fearless military hero, is crippled by a broken leg (or two?), leaving Junior to make a journey of 100 kilometres to reach a beacon to alert off world rescuers to their presence. Unfortunately, according to Senior every creature on the planet has evolved specifically to kill human beings (although humans apparently haven’t been present for quite some time?), and the dangerous drop in temperature every evening adds an extra element of danger to the mission. Oh, and there was a vicious alien on the crashed aircraft that can smell human fear, because all the monkeys, tigers, giant eagles, poisonous leeches and weird flying snake things weren’t enough of a threat apparently.
Basically everything about After Earth is atrocious. Where the estimated $130m budget went is anyone’s guess, as the film is not only messily written but features some of the most laughable special effects of recent times. There’s no consistency to the direction, and none of the major story beats come close to earning their intended impact. But even if it looked great, and the potentially interesting animal evolution aspect was fleshed out more, After Earth was doomed from the beginning by a fatal error in crafting Smith Senior’s character.
This, as those who pay attention to such things may have heard, is where Smith’s apparent true motives lay with the movie, and was the main reason I ventured out to see this nightmare. What’s below might be considered mildly spoiler-ish, so if you were planning on seeing After Earth (pro tip: don’t), it might be worth skipping the end of this review.
I don’t particularly want to get into too much of a discussion about Scientology as a whole or Will Smith’s alleged involvement, as much better writers than I have looked into it (if you’ve got a couple of hours, I highly recommend this series of articles), but I am interested in how After Earth is being viewed by some as heavily promoting the quasi-religious group.
Smith’s character, the absurdly named Cypher Raige, is a hero of the ongoing off-Earth wars against the hideous alien species because of his ability to ‘ghost’, to become invisible to the aliens because of a complete absence of fear. Smith Junior on the other hand lives with the guilt of his sister’s death during the initial alien attack, guilt which manifests itself in fear which the aliens can detect through skin secretions. Unfortunately, as bad ass as it might sound on paper to have a character who actually has no fear, it makes it all but impossible to care about anything that happens to him or his son. A lack of fear comes across on screen as a lack of all emotion, and why should the audience care about any of what’s happening when it seems that the character doesn’t?
Predictably, the only way Smith Junior can overcome the alien adversary and activate the beacon is by freeing himself from his guilt, and letting the memory of his sister’s death lie once and for all. This concept of being hampered or in some way disadvantaged by memories is one of the documented cornerstones of Scientology beliefs, and while I never really felt After Earth was actively recruiting for the controversial religion, it certainly heavily promotes those strengths which Scientology holds in high regard. Smith Senior, a man whose strength seems borne out of his ability to live in the moment and without regret, even has a handful of weak moments which are intercut with flashbacks, and it’s hard to ignore the connections once they are brought to your attention.
Personally I don’t think it makes a difference to the quality of After Earth either way, but it’s certainly an interesting extra element which might explain some of the film’s more glaring faults, and it’s worth applauding those film analysts who cottoned on to the film’s Scientology agenda first. To be perfectly honest though, even this weird side to the story doesn’t make it worth seeing. People wanting a thrilling science fiction yarn or a touching father and son overcoming adversity movie aren’t going to get either, but nor will anyone get a hilariously awful Battlefield Earth style Scientology screed. It’s just an aggressively bland, ugly and pointless waste of time, and remains uncontested for worst of the year thus far.