Difficult it is to assess which problematic function of After Earth is the worst, whether it be the full-frontal nepotism or the allusions to Scientology, it is clear that neither helps M. Night Shyamalan’s feature. Nothing much helped him through a rocky period that began with Avatar: The Last Airbender and intermittently stopped and started from then on. At least audiences still have The Village. But they also have After Earth, a colossal piece of poor entertainment that will be remembered more for its strange allusions to L. Ron Hubbard than anything else. A shame, since Shyamalan films usually have something within them that makes them, at the very least, quite fun.
There is no fun to be found in After Earth, a feature that takes place in a jargon-fuelled post-apocalyptic world. While this Shyamalan feature manages to visually pop, its post-apocalyptic set-up is insultingly simple. Disasters that struck the world with some horrible CGI showing flocks of people fleeing Earth, narrated by Jaden Smith of all people, is an approach unlike any other. It manages to solidify a very primitive exploration of the stars and fight against aliens yet at the same time makes it sound so utterly banal. That is likely the impossibly banal tone Smith takes, with his father wandering around the field of battle doing nothing much whatsoever. The father and son dynamic never take flight, ironic considering the pair are family in real life and in this feature film.
It is more fault of the scriptwriting than anything else though. Those that view After Earth would be hard-pressed to knock the vision Shyamalan is trying to cobble together from a script that features Will Smith and Gary Whitta alongside his byline. Does it help that After Earth feels like a soulless and empty science-fiction piece in a year that was dominated by similar projects? Probably not. But it is not as though Oblivion and Ender’s Game are much competition, especially not when the leading duo feel uncomfortable acting with one another. Jaden is relatively poor and unfocused while Will has never been the great performer his light romps through the action-comedy genre would proclaim. Men in Black this is not. Even then, the back and forth between the father and son team should be interesting, yet Shyamalan and his cast fail to inspire much life in this relationship.
Quite the chunk of money to splash out on a film that just doesn’t work. After Earth is ridiculous not just in its simplicity but in its defiance of what makes science-fiction good. Sleek and simplistic, that is what After Earth hopes will win over audiences as it bleaches and curves countertops and homes to look both recognisable in the modern world but also futuristic enough to preside over the sci-fi tag. Shyamalan is stuck between a rock and a hard place as he dabbles in a feature that alludes a little too closely to Scientology, a little too obviously to nepotism and far too stringently banking on the nepotism at the core of it. Smith and Smith feel like complete strangers in this father and son bonding mission beyond the stars.