The Unwatchables: After Earth

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It’s a testament to the toxic narcissistic nepotism of the Smith clan that I completely forgot After Earth is a directorial effort by the favorite whipping boy of modern cinema, M. Night Shyamalan. Under other circumstances, I might have immediately attributed my growing distaste for the film strictly and grouchily to the the filmmaker who seemed like a burgeoning visionary with The Sixth Sense, ambitious but unsteady with Unbreakable, and then a creative disaster of exponentially increasing scale on every subsequent film. And yet despite Shyamalan’s ownership of the film (besides directing, he’s also co-credited on the screenplay), the mighty malice stirred by After Earth is directed squarely at Will Smith and his emotively inert scion, Jaden Smith. This production comes across as the worst sort of vanity project: a big-budget spectacle that treats the dopiest of premises with pretentious, stern-lipped seriousness. It eschews anything resembling wit or joy in favor of a somberness swelled to grotesque proportions.

Because even the character names reek of pompous idiocy, Will Smith plays Cypher Raige, a member of interstellar space rangers centuries in the future. The human race has long abandoned Earth, living instead on a distant world called Nova Prime. Cypher is cold and distant, especially with his children, especially his son Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), who is struggling in his own attempts to develop into a place within his father’s military organization. As some sort of vaguely defined father-son bonding experience, Cypher takes Kitai along on a mission in outer space. When a catastrophic accident occurs, the ship careens through a wormhole and crashes on earth, killing everyone aboard except, conveniently, Cypher and Kitai. Gravely injured, Cypher needs to send his boy across the now-hostile terrain of Earth to trigger a signal beacon in the distantly-located remainder of the spacecraft wreckage. Without the call for help, the two will die on the planet. Kitai won’t be embarking on this boy’s adventure entirely alone, since the sci-fi technology gives his father improbably visual and audio access to absolutely everything that’s happening out there in the nasty wilds, and dad can keep chiming in with largely unhelpful, consistently testy instructions.

Devoid of any added context, the movie is brutally boring. The nagging sense that something is off, even beyond the hackneyed storytelling, is arguably explained by the pervasive suspicion that the whole film is Will Smith’s stealth paean to Scientology, a “religion” that the movie star has repeatedly denied any formal connection with, even though he pours an awful lot of money into it. Apparently, the most famous cautionary tale about delivering a science fiction extravaganza in tribute to L. Ron Hubbard’s most enduring creation has been completely forgotten. It’s reasonable to take offense at any dispensation of the doltish cult’s foundational premises, but the main problem is that the film consistently feels like little more than a zealot’s beliefs reworked and dramatized in the most simplistic manner, a sure formula for dreadfully unsatisfying fiction.

I lasted for 57 minutes of the film’s 100-minute running time.

Previously in The Unwatchables
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen directed by Michael Bay
Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton
Due Date directed by Todd Phillips
Sucker Punch directed by Zack Snyder
Cowboys & Aliens directed by Jon Favreau

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