Shyamalan sinks further into obscurity with ‘After Earth’

June 6, 2013
Will Smith and Jaden Smith in Columbia Pictures' "After Earth."

With more lives than Jason Voorhees, M. Night Shyamalan is back once again trying to find an audience who still holds out hope that he can pull off the same magic he displayed -- once -- almost 20 years ago, with a little film called "The Sixth Sense."

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Many will argue that he's had some successes since, though nothing has since come close, either collapsing at its conclusion ("Unbreakable," Signs"), or resulting in nothing short of an endurance test (everything else he's ever directed).

Though you wouldn’t know he had anything to do with "After Earth," as his name has been suspiciously low (or altogether absent) on the film's marketing materials. Here he's acting solely as a director-for-hire, as though writer/star Will Smith decided to do a favor for a fellow Philly homie.

Yes, "After Earth" is a Will Smith vanity effort through and through: from writing to producing, starring and providing his seed to produce the film's co-star Jaden Smith. The film is set a thousand years in the future.

How can we tell it's in the future? If modern sci-fi has taught us nothing it's that the first thing to get destroyed is a CMYK color palette, leaving things only in shades of gray. Humans have escaped to Nova Prime, a planet that is still hospitable to us, as creatures have evolved (rather quickly, I might add) to hunt and eat us the second our toes hit the dull-gray landscape.

Of course, humans have done a little evolving of their own. Well, only one human in particular. That would be, of course, Cypher Raige (played by Will Smith, bestowing himself with the most ridiculous/cool name ever set to screen).

Cypher is a soldier who has established the art of "ghosting," which means he can suppress all fear that makes us susceptible to attack. Young Kitai (played by Jaden Smith) has had a tenuous relationship with his papa, to say the least, sparked by a family tragedy years ago. In an attempt to bond, the elder Raige takes the young cadet on what is to be his final mission before retirement. An asteroid shower puts a minor dent in their plans, crash-landing the crew on ... wait for it... Earth, where the two Raiges are the sole survivors.

The rest of the film is dedicated to finding a rescue beacon that was lost in a section of the craft that has yet to be found, but the job of finding it is solely on the shoulders of Kitai, as his father suffered two broken legs in the crash. This is perhaps the biggest flaw of a film with countless. Why in the hell would you cast Mr. Charisma, Will Smith, in a role that requires him to a) possess a skill in which he must remain utterly stoic to survive? And b) hobble him with two bad legs, thereby keeping him immobile throughout the entirety of the film?

This is clearly a torch-passing picture, meant to signify that his son is ready to take over his box office domination. But it took Smith a while to establish his cred, toiling as a rapper, TV star and star of smaller flicks before becoming the world savior he is known for today. And try as he might, Jaden is far from ready for the challenge. His weaknesses as an actor are hightened by the thin script and narrative focus on his character.

In addition, he's chosen some really strange dialect in which to speak and serve as narrator, which seems to fluctuate depending on the scene.

There's also the pronunciation of his name, which is either "Kitay" or "Kitii," depending on if either he or his father pronounces it.

Accents aside, neither Kitai nor Cypher are really all that interesting.

They are exactly who we expect them to be, with no Shyamalan-like twist to their characters whatsoever.

They also go exactly where you expect them to go and do exactly what you expect them to do. There is not an ounce of ingenuity dedicated to any aspect of the proceedings, which may be serviceable for those who have not seen a science fiction film since...well, ever. But for anyone else who expects more than a $130 million “After School Special,” you may want to look elsewhere.

While it’s not the infamous cinematic port-a-potty that was “Battlefield Earth,” the sci-fi opus from fellow Scientologist John Travolta, no one escapes “After Earth” unscathed. But it is Shyamalan who further sinks into obscurity with this endeavor.

With almost two decades to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder, perhaps audience will not realize that it’s been far too long since he stopped making “Sense.”

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