Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

June 5, 2013

“After Earth” isn’t great, but modestly watchable

Rob Cox
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — “After Earth,” the latest project from uber-star Will Smith, has been anything but a critical darling; in truth, reviews have been brutal.

The film currently stands at 12 percent approval at review aggregator, based on 128 reviews. After seeing “Earth,” I can’t help wondering if some of the negativity is driven by the reputation of director M. Night Shyamalan.

I went in not realizing Shyamalan was involved. If I HAD known, I probably wouldn’t have seen it; yeah, his track record is THAT bad.

The once-vaunted director doesn’t exactly redeem his tattered reputation with “Earth,” but neither was this film quite as dreadful as critical consensus suggests.

Shyamalan seems aware of his less-than-stellar reputation, delivering a film that’s surprisingly devoid of gimmicky or outright silly plot twists. That decided lack of twistiness might also owe, at least in part, to the fact Smith himself wrote the story (Shyamalan penned the screenplay with Gary Whitta).

Big-budget, sci-fi spectacle though it may be ($130 million budget), “Earth” tells a decidedly pared-down story; at its heart lies the relationship between a militaristic father named Cypher Raige (Smith) and his son, Kitai (Smith’s real-life son Jaden Smith).

The two live on Nova Prime, a civilization that, a 1000 years prior, relocated when Earth became uninhabitable.

Cypher is a world-renowned warrior whose ability to suppress his fear (called “ghosting” in the film’s parlance) helped Nova Prime defeat an alien race who use fear to track and kill its enemies.

The S’krell weren’t defeated easily though, and Kitai’s haunted by the belief his inaction and fear led to his sister’s death during the war. He’s also haunted by his inability, to date, to live up to daddy’s legacy.

Through twist of fate, father and son are stranded on Earth, the only survivors of a starship crash.

This is not our Earth, but rather, a hostile, alien place marked by deadly temperatures swings and life forms that have evolved into lethal predators; the air itself is poisonous.

Cypher is immobilized in the crash, leaving only Kitai to journey across Earth to retrieve a rescue-beacon ejected there when the ship broke apart. Through technological means, Cypher tracks, watches and communicates with young Kitai, doing everything possible to help him along his journey.

“Earth’s” primary appeal is the chemistry between Smith and Jaden. Watching the two, one gets a sense of watching something more personal than mere acting. Their interplay seems almost therapeutic at times.

That dynamic, combined with Kitai’s coming of age as he journeys across the planet, make watching “Earth” like watching the pages of a young-adult novel unfold onscreen.

To be sure, Jaden Smith isn’t nearly as charismatic or skilled as his dad, yet he’s given nearly an entire movie to carry on his shoulders. Criticisms of “Earth’s” pacing — that it’s prodding and uninspired — are fair enough too, but for all that, “Earth” IS, in the least, watchable.

It’s watchable for the entire family, too. It’s squeaky clean in regards to cursing and sexuality, and its violence is limited to the comic-book variety; I can’t imagine it would be disturbing to anyone but very young children.

It’s a film parents and teens can watch together and find relatable — something not terribly common with big-budget, live-action Hollywood.

Are there better movies currently playing at the multi-plex, films more worthy of your entertainment dollar? Certainly. Parents won’t find many other big-budget films, however, in which they can so readily find common ground with their teens.

Rating: Yip-and-a-half

Score: 55/100

Runtime: 100 minutes

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi/fantasy violence

Rating System Explained: Rabies = 0; Yip = *; Bark = **; Howl = ***; Lone-wolf howl = ****; Leader of the pack = *****