Ah yes, it is summertime which means that it is time for Will Smith to kick some alien butt.
What you mean his legs are broken? Both of them? Well who is going to protect earth from the giant oversized water bugs? Jaden? That little dude doesn’t even have hair on his chin and you want me to believe he is capable of standing in his father’s footsteps? Oh pops is going to guide him through his journey through some suped-up visual and audio equipped space suit? Oh, okay well that might work.
Or maybe not.
After Earth, the latest project by Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment Company (including producers wife Jada Pinkett-Smith and brother-in-law Caleeb Pinkett) opened in a disappointing third place behind the sixth installation of Fast & Furious (which is now in its second week) and the crime thriller Now You See Me. The poor domestic box office showing only appeared to give credence to Manhola Dargis scathing review in the New York Times in which she lamented about the film, “Once upon a time, Hollywood parents gave their children sports cars as gifts. These days, apparently nothing less than a big-screen vanity project will do for Junior.”
This NYT review echos much of the sentiment I have been reading online from other critics. The Washington Journal called the film, “Muddle Earth.” Sergio Mims at Shadow and Act co-signed the New York Times reviewer and quipped on his own that he wished Jaden had asked for the Porsche instead; Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic took a more exploratory route in his criticism and basically asked, “What was Will Smith thinking?” And that was the tip of the film-sinking iceberg. After a while, it seems like a competition to see who can out-snark the other and produce an equally or better scathing review of the film.
It doesn’t help that everyone’s favorite punching bag is involved in the project as well. I’m talking about M. Night Shyamalan. The guy that made us shudder from fear with his twisted ending of The Sixth Sense and has disappointed many of us since – well, many of y’all. I’m actually enjoy a good Shyamalan story and am one of a few loyal fans, who anticipate his films. I loved Signs and The Village as much as folks loved The Sixth Sense. Heck, I even liked Lady in the Water too. Admittedly, some of his films are more compelling than others (and I will admit to not liking The Happening or Unbreakable), however there is a reliance on folklore in his style of storytelling, including the use of legends, spiritual and religious moral lessons and tall tales, which I always appreciated. His films remind me of one of those Aesop’s Fables we used to read as children yet set in contemporary settings. While this style of storytelling is as old as time, it can also stand in contrast to Hollywood’s much more contemporary offerings, which lends itself more plausibility, style and flare.
Or I could be just trying to wash over what is a bad film. Sometimes a good story doesn’t always translate into a great film. And that’s why generally speaking, I think the critics are right; this is not Shyamalan nor Smith’s best work. There was something off about the tone of After Earth. Even as the film’s run-time was approximately 1 hour and forty minutes, the pacing seemed to make the film drag on as if it was longer. I can take a film with a slow build up – heck I can take a slow film where dialog takes precedent over action. But this was just slow. In fact, both Will and Jaden’s roles were very wooden and one-note; Will, dormant to spaceship chair, basically did the stern drill Sargent-dad face the entire film while his son Jaden cried and whimpered. The danger felt contrived and at some points of the film I couldn’t understand why Jaden’s character should have felt afraid at all. And even in the midst of all the CGI magic, I didn’t feel that watching the General bark orders at Kitai through some intergalactic walkie-talkie for three-fourths of the film a compelling watch. In fact, a good portion of the film was spent wishing it would get to the point.
But while it falls short as a film, it also probably has one of the best messages about fatherhood and manhood to come out of a film a very long time. A son, at that age where he is smelling himself, must prove his manhood in the face of real life challenges. A father, known mostly for his authoritative disposition more than his role as a father, will have to relinquish control and put his fate into the hands of his less-than-confident son. It’s a film about the rites of passages, which men (young and old) go through and in some respects it would make a perfect amendment to The Pursuit of Happyness. The story is chalked full of the kind of old man wisdom that you want to passed down to your own children (real or imagined) give your children and make sure that they understand as they go off alone int the world. The problem is that I don’t think I could get them to sit still long enough to take it in.
Are some of the critics of After Earth piling on? Probably so. I think folks like watching celebrities take one on the chin every now and then. Also people in general seem to have an issue with the Smiths, which goes beyond the nepotism, which by most accounts had long existed in Hollywood before Smith off-springs came on the scene (I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why Sophia Coppola deserved the Oscar for Lost in Translation). But the truth of the matter is that After Earth suffers the same fate that many well-intended films have: it’s a good story, developed by Will, and a crappy film.