For a $130 million vanity project, After Earth is remarkably lean. Conceived by Will Smith as a starring vehicle for his son, Jaden, the movie is a no-frills wilderness survival tale with sci-fi trappings. For most of its running time, its two major characters are the only people onscreen. Big chunks of the movie pass without dialogue. The set-up is clean and simple: A spacecraft crash-lands on a deep-future, depopulated Earth; the only survivors, a father and son, must recover the craft’s distress beacon in order to be rescued.
The father has broken both of his legs. The son is inexperienced. They have few supplies, and suspect that their cargo—an alien specimen—has survived. They don’t uncover secrets. They don’t pass ruined landmarks. They don’t get sentimental about their home world or wonder about what humanity has lost by relocating to the stars. As far as the movie is concerned, Earth is a hostile planet that their ancestors left with good reason.
Acting more or less as a hired gun, director M. Night Shyamalan brings considerable formal chops to the project. His style—part arthouse, part Spielberg—is well-suited to the material, and his knack for framing and editing comes in handy during the movie’s many dialogue-free scenes, including an effective post-crash sequence that intentionally breaks nearly every rule of classical continuity editing. Austere, roomy compositions—courtesy of Peter Suschitzky, the longtime David Cronenberg cinematographer who also shot The Empire Strikes Back—frame Jaden Smith’s character against vast backdrops of swaying foliage; during certain stretches, After Earth looks more like an elaborate Werner Herzog homage than a big-budget sci-fi flick.
And yet, despite all of this, After Earth is a mixed bag. It’s hard to blame Shyamalan for the downright embarrassing opening, a choppy mess of redundant exposition that seems to belong in a different movie. Shyamalan may be an earnest (and some would say corny) storyteller, but he’s also economical; the opening’s overreliance on stock footage and plot-explaining voiceover stinks of test-screening rewrites. Then there’s the problem of Jaden Smith; bereft of charisma or anything resembling acting talent, he’s more liability than lead. Fortunately, he spends almost the entire movie running, jumping, and listening to his father talk—all things that the young Smith or his stunt double seem to be very good at.
As the father, Will Smith spends most of After Earth sitting in a chair. His performance is grim and low-key; occasionally, it feels like the elder Smith is trying to throw the film in his son’s favor. To further complicate matters, all of the movie’s dialogue is spoken in a futuristic, vaguely Caribbean “post-Earth” accent, which proves to be distracting, since neither Smith seems to be able to keep his accent consistent.
As if to counterbalance the outsize dynasty-building ambitions of the movie’s producer/co-star, Shyamalan scales back at key moments. Will Smith’s centerpiece monologue, for instance, is composed in chiaroscuro static shots, which lends the scene ambiguity. The crash sequence plays out without any music; when James Newton Howard’s score does come in, it’s frequently modernist and dissonant—not exactly the sort of music you’d expect in a father-son bonding movie. Shyamalan’s sensibility may not be enough to turn After Earth into a great (or even very good) film, but it does yield interesting—and at times strikingly realized—results.