The last time Will and Jaden Smith starred side-by-side in the same movie, Will earned an Academy Award nomination for 2006’s “Pursuit of Happyness.”
But this time, it’s Jaden who steals the show in the new science-fiction drama “After Earth.”
Anchored by the organic onscreen chemistry between Will and Jaden — as in real life, they portray a father-and-son duo in the new movie — “After Earth” starts out slow but steadily builds momentum. Ultimately, the film succeeds by simply giving Jaden Smith sufficient screen-time and emotional space to showcase acting chops that are uncannily mature for someone so young.
Greater than the sum of its parts
On paper, a lot of warning flags surround “After Earth.” First and foremost, director M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been in steady decline since he burst onto the Hollywood scene with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999. (From 2000-2012, Shyamalan directed six films. And every time one of his movies hit theaters, the film earned a lower score from movie-review aggregator Metacritic than the previous Shyamalan project.) Also, Will Smith personally conjured the story for “After Earth” with a rather narrow goal in mind: to be a star-making vehicle for Jaden.
Although the basic premise of “After Earth” sounds solid enough — a father and son are the only two survivors on a space ship that crash-lands on earth 1,000 years after humans abandoned the planet — a lot of plot developments are completely unrealistic. For example, a bird that looks like a golden eagle but is the size of a school bus initially tries to kill teenage protagonist Kitai Raige — but then later inexplicably goes to great lengths to save the boy’s life.
Ostensibly because the film is set centuries into the future, everyone speaks English in an odd accent that sounds vaguely South African with traces of New Zealander and Jamaican. Even though the hybridized accent clearly suggests Shyamalan wants the audience to believe language has evolved to some extent, characters still repeatedly bandy about slang phrases like “ASAP” and “good to go” that will likely be gone from English dialects a decade or two from now, much less the lexicon of the next millennium.
But “After Earth” has an ace up its sleeve that more than makes up for its myriad deficiencies: the elegantly emotive acting of Jaden Smith. Now a teenager, Smith is clearly building on the solid performance he gave in the 2010 remake of “The Karate Kid.”
For most the 100-minute run-time of “After Earth,” Jaden Smith’s Kitai Raige is journeying 100 km by himself through a dangerous and dystrophic wilderness in search of a rescue beacon. The father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), is injured and stuck on the crashed ship; however, Cypher can see everything his son sees, and the two talk to each other over a radio connection.
Kitai gets most of the screen time. And depending on the circumstance, Jaden Smith fully integrates his face, body and voice to nimbly convey strong emotions like fear, determination and even arrogance while traipsing from one life-and-death encounter to the next. It’s an emotional range very rarely seen from a male actor this young.
When less is more
It bears mentioning that a significant ingredient in Jaden Smith’s fine performance is the complete absence of anything in “After Earth” to distract the audience or otherwise steal his spotlight. By capably guiding the movie from one scene to the next, the director Shyamalan functions like a caretaker sworn to the Hippocratic oath “do no harm.” Special effects are parlayed into science-fiction violence, but only modestly and as needed to advance the storyline. Refreshingly, there is absolutely no sex, nudity or coarse language in “After Earth.” At the end of the movie there is no surprise plot twist, as Shyamalan has been known to insert into his films.
Taken as a whole, it’s the sort of creative demurral that constitutes new ground for Shyamalan, who in the past has always helmed projects he seeded. (Even though he earned a screenwriting credit for “After Earth,” Shyamalan was brought into the project after the story was already set in place.)
“After Earth” may have faltered out of the gate, and it’s not a film that will win any awards. But with Jaden Smith’s star-making performance and an uplifting father-son storyline to boot, the movie simply feels emotionally satisfying.
“After Earth” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.