I started watching AFTER EARTH as if it were an 80s b-grade sci-fi movie in the hope that I wouldn’t be disappointed. The first 20 minutes of the film reminded me strongly of JOHN CARTER, so hope of this being a workable strategy was fading fast. Nevertheless, I pressed on.
After watching this film, I feel *so* sorry for Jaden Smith. Not only does the poor kid have to live his real life in his father Will Smith’s shadow, he has to star in a movie where the entire plot is about… a kid living in his father’s shadow. No wonder Jaden’s only expression throughout the film is that of a sullen teenager.
Visually, AFTER EARTH is top-notch. On par with AVATAR. The environments are spectacularly immersive and realistic. The action is engaging—there’s one pretty cool base-jumping sequence. And the monstrous Ursa, creatures bred to kill humans (yep we’re *that* special) actually look quite scary, especially in the flashbacks of torso-piercing terror. Like something straight out of Gears of War. Apparently they pump pheromones (fearomones?) into the air, which induces their victims into a fear state, and then go smelling out your fear then Stabby McStab you to death. Clever.
I enjoyed the dystopian premise. We’ve abandoned uninhabitable Earth for Nova Prime but we only get to see a few minutes of that. Most of the film takes place back on Earth, after a crash landing, where everything has magically “evolved” to kill humans and somehow the planet freezes solid at night but is a sun-drenched tropical rainforest in daylight. Gravity on Nova Prime isn’t as strong as Earth’s so your body “feels heavier” on Earth, yet you’re still able to pull off a flawless running wall-jump between a mossy log and a tree. Despite the lower gravity, humans on Nova Prime somehow haven’t evolved bodies which are skinnier with muscular atrophy. I could rant on about how lame the “science” is, but it’s more interesting to discuss the emotional mindfuck this film actually is.
AFTER EARTH is that super-awkward night when you visit a family for dinner and the parents are so insecure about their own parenting ability, they overcompensate by morphing into these hyper-aggressive zero-tolerance discipline machines towards their kids. And when they’ve successfully scared their spawn into retreat away from the “adults table” so mummy and daddy can have some grown-ups time, mummy and daddy have forgotten how to deal with their peers beyond clichéd conversation. Cue montage of awkward silence and sipping from over-sized wine glasses.
Will Smith’s character is this kind of parent. He cannot feel fear and this makes him an heroic uber-warrior against the Ursa (he is invisible to them). But the problem I have with this film is that he’s gone off the emotional deep end into fully psychopathic empathy-death. He’s a military man, we get that. But your son isn’t a soldier. You don’t engage with him by repeating instructions in your monotonic lecture voice, then get him to recite them back to you to make sure he understood. Anyone with that for a father is going to snap, and Jaden’s character Kitai (cool name) eventually does.
So what is the moral of the story that AFTER EARTH is trying to beat us over the head with? “Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” …unless you’ve been brainwashed by extremism. Perhaps its lesson is that if you raise your kids with a stone cold heart of indefatigable disappointment they’ll channel their fear of never meeting your expectations into an unrelenting idealism for themselves, until one day they completely break down and become as fearless and emotionally dead inside as you already are. Cloning process complete.
Verdict: ★★☆ you’re not gonna lose sleep if you miss it.