Everybody loves Will Smith right? Effortlessly charismatic, always likeable, perennial presence in popular entertainment for over two decades. Right? Well not anymore from the looks of things. His latest film After Earth has failed to live up to expectations at the box office, opening at number 3, and received the harshest reviews of Smith’s career (which includes Wild Wild West). What could he have possible done to deserve this?
Will originated the story for After Earth and serves as a producer, along with his wife, but on-screen, it is not really a Will Smith film. Here he takes a literal back seat in order to thrust his teenage son Jaden into the spotlight.
Nepotism is nothing new in Hollywood, with there being many examples of famous performers with famous parents, and plenty more of directors giving starring roles to their wives; however it’s never been quite as blatant as this. An A-list, powerful star/producer, using his clout to get a $130 million blockbuster made to centre on his teenage offspring. Normally when a huge film requires a young lead, any hopefuls will have to pass through an extensive audition process to win the part. Let’s not kid ourselves; Jaden Smith has done no such thing.
Making matters worse, from the looks of things he certainly couldn’t have earned the role if it hadn’t been handed to him. The young performer, upon whose shoulders the film rests (he is alone for a good deal of it), is not up to carrying it. Any moments requiring him to emote are at best, unconvincing, and at worst completely laughable. One might think the presence of a real father and son could add an element of authenticity to proceedings but no such evidence is on display here. Instead we have an annoying teenager, who does not seem to have inherited his father’s talents.
Set many years in the future, when humanity has long left earth, a ship carrying Smith Sr., a successful military type, and Smith Jr., an aspiring one, crashes into an abandoned planet earth. Both of Smith Sr.’s legs are broken, so Junior must head out into the wilderness to find a signal beacon.
The majority of a film is basically like an adventure video game. Jaden, dressed in some kind of techno-suit with undefined functions, has to navigate his way through obstacles and dodge dangerous creatures while his father backs him up via radio communication. Too often, it is about as exciting as watching someone playing such a video game.
After Earth is not a total disaster though, M. Night Shyamalan (who’s sunk so low in Hollywood that his name is no longer being used on posters or in trailers) realises the post-apocalyptic forest environment well, admirably resists the temptation to throw in appearances from contemporary landmarks, and gets in a couple of more striking moments. Some of its sci-fi technology is also quite interesting and original, and Will Smith himself, playing an uptight, humourless character, isn’t that bad. Judging by the current reviews one might expect something totally dire from the film, and it’s not that. It’s not even the worst film of the week in the UK, (The Last Exorcism Part II has it there), but it’s still an ill-thought out, misguided bore of a vanity project.