Cast: Will Smith (Cypher), Jaden Smith (Kitai), Sophie Okonedo (Faia), Zoe Kravitz (Senshi) Director: M. Night Shyamalan; Rated: PG-13
After Earth did something I wasn’t expecting… it made me think. Better than I was anticipating, this film isn’t exactly what it seems and I’m glad I saw it with my teenage son, given what this film is really about. After Earth is wearing a carefully marketed disguise. If you are expecting a Smith/Smith epic sci-fi action-packed adventure popcorn flick… well, you get some of that. But actually, at its core the film is a coming-of-age tale about the evolution of a relationship between a career-driven father and his teenage son. It’s about the struggle of a parent and child being forced to find a connection and faith in one another after tragedy and circumstance befall them. All the sci-fi galaxy hoo-ha is just a backdrop.
The movie takes place on a futuristic planet Earth where fearless uber soldier, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), and his cowardly son, Kitai (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden) unexpectedly crash land. Every entity on this planet poses a threat and has evolved to kill humans instinctively. The spaceship’s broken in two and the sole survivors need to recover the tail in order to be rescued. When Cypher discovers he has broken both legs after the crash landing, there is no choice but to rely on Kitai to make this journey alone, which is troubling because he does not possess his father’s lack of fear.
It’s an interesting choice to bench action star Will Smith. He’s flat on his back most of the film. Unlike in most of his sci-fi themed movies, the power of Will is not saving the day. This one’s on Jaden and he needs every bit of his Karate Kid training to trudge through evolved Earth. Cypher can only guide Kitai with his voice throughout the journey to the half of their ship that contains a beacon signal that must be deployed if they are to be rescued. It is the responsibility of a parent to provide his child with the proper tools to do well on his own. But what do you do when you’re a fearless hero and your child is well… not?
After Earth begins with Kitai not making ranger staus. He’s prone to stress, panic attacks and straight-up fear. Okay, so he’s not exactly the super soldier his father is. Cypher possesses the rare skill of being able to shut out fear which makes his enemies unable to see, smell, or locate him. Kitai does not possess this gift. This proves disappointing to Cypher. His mother, Faia, played by Sophie Okonedo, establishes that Kitai has a better relationship with his mother; perhaps some bonding with Dad is in order. This is how Kitai ends up on a business trip with his father Cypher.
But something else is going on between these two which reveals itself in several flashbacks. Kitai had a sister, Senshi (Zoe Kravitz), who was killed by a predator called an Ursa. Senshi, played effortlessly by the delightfully easy-to-watch Zoe Kravitz, gives us a glimpse into what happened to Kitai and why he is so tormented. He blames himself for surviving an Ursa attack that took his sister’s life and he believes his father blames him as well. Thus the theme of family and familial stuff that needs to be worked out progresses.
If I had not seen this film with my own teenaged son, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much as I did. I related to the parent-and-teen tug of war. The film has some cool moments once you let go of the fact that Will Smith is not going to get up and go save his real-life son. It’s all on Jaden, and despite a rocky start (Jaden speaks in an accent I can only describe as, well… not great. It’s supposed to be Australian… I think? It’s so distracting, I thought… uh,oh I can’t sit here. But my son was into the movie and Big Willy always makes me laugh, so I committed to relaxing and enjoying my mother/son time), the Karate Kid training pays off in spades. Jaden shows us his cool footing during climbs, jumps and a really entertaining glide through the air.
After Earth was adventurous for sure. The special effects were fine – nothing “Earth” shattering. Having a teen carry a mega-film is a big ask. Jaden does okay. He gets better as his character evolves; perhaps this is because the character grows closer to the real-life, confident Jaden. It’s very hard even for a second to get past the fact that you are watching Will Smith and his son Jaden. My take is this: because Will Smith is such an action star and Jaden was so definable in the Karate Kid, and they are such a well-known, real-life family, believing these two as space son and Dad was always going to be an automatic hurdle for the audience. If Jaden was any other actor playing against any other actor, maybe I wouldn’t be judging him with a magnifying glass.
All in all, After Earth is not the surefire summer blockbuster we had hoped for, but movie making is tough and the Smiths are entertaining in any form.
Reviewed by Lesa Lakin