“After Earth” is a film about emotions. Its central theme is that of conquering fear and overcoming negative emotions in order to overcome the greatest of obstacles. And that theme is why the film fails. It’s not because it’s a flawed theme, or because the story doesn’t fit the theme. It’s because the actors are having a hard time being emotional at all.
In the year 3000, humanity has abandoned Earth and moved on to a new home, the planet Nova Prime. While it’s a better home than post-apocalyptic Earth, Nova Prime inhabitants are hunted by an alien species that is blind and targets their prey through fear-induced pheromones. That’s right: They literally smell fear.
Jaden Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) plays Kitai, a boy who aims to be a Ghost— a human who has no fear, and therefore cannot be “seen” by these aliens. He and his father, Cypher (Will Smith, “Men in Black 3”) are on a training mission when they enter a wormhole and crash land on Earth. As Cypher points out, pretty much every living thing on Earth has evolved to kill humans. With his father’s legs broken, Kitai must explore the jungles of new Earth in order to locate a beacon that will help them get rescued.
The movie tells a tale of a boy who becomes fearless when a lot of his peers have no fear at all. However, with the exception of Jaden Smith, who genuinely does the best he can with what he’s given, this leads to most of the supporting cast exhibiting pretty much no emotion at all. Everyone feels robotic and wooden, even more than the CGI baboons or condors that hunt Kitai.
Because of this, it’s hard to believe that Will Smith and his son share any real chemistry in the film. Cypher treats his son as a soldier under his command, and although the script calls for him to have faith in his son, the audience never sees that due to his stilted performance.
The film isn’t paced very well, either. This may come as a shock to people who have seen director M. Night Shyamalan’s other, better works, but the film is a complete slog. Too much time is spend trying to build that relationship between Kitai and his father that the film feels boring. When the action ramps up, it’s hard for the audience to care if they have been sitting through a ten-minute sequence of Cypher and Kitai trying to relate to each other.
Overall, the film is a complete mess. It’s hard to believe that the two leads have any bond, the theme conflicts with the bad acting and it’s too slow for it’s own good. Jaden Smith does a fairly good job handling the material (for a 14-year-old actor, anyway), but nobody else plays off him very well. Given better casting and direction, the film could’ve been an interesting insight as to what makes us human, but under the helm of this crew, it’s better off being skipped.