Tuesday 19 September 2017

Bringing Will down to earth

Will Smith and his son Jaden star in sci fi thriller After Earth
Will Smith and his son Jaden star in sci fi thriller After Earth

Paul Whitington

Film of the Week: After Earth (12A, general release, 100 minutes) 2 STARS

Director: M Night Shyamalan Stars: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Isabelle Fuhrman, Sophie Okenedo

Once upon a time Will Smith was considered such a surefire box office draw the media nicknamed him 'Mr 4th of July'. That's the traditional date on which big action blockbusters ideally open in America, and from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s Smith became ubiquitous in loud and populist summer smashes.

The films – Independence Day, Bad Boys, Men in Black, I, Robot – weren't always that good, but Smith was a dependable screen hero with charm to burn and a cheeky likeability.

Despite the odd moment – he was generously Oscar-nominated for his performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness – Will has never really moved on to become a serious actor, and in recent years the action hits have started drying up.

I Am Legend and Hancock made a lot of money, but weren't really all that good, and Seven Pounds was bad enough to do his Teflon box office credentials damage. As he moves deeper into middle age, it's hard to see which way Smith will take his career, but this portentous caper suggests that more science-fiction may not be the answer.

Co-written by Gary Whitta and M Night Shyamalan, who also directs, and based on an original idea by Smith, After Earth is set 1,000 years in the future, and stars Smith and his 14-year-old son Jaden as two men in the service of an elite Ranger corps.

After mankind's wanton behaviour during the 20th and 21st centuries rendered our beautiful little planet uninhabitable, humanity decamped en masse for a new life on a pristine moon.

Which sounds idyllic, but when Nova Prime also gets invaded by a race of giant alien carnivores, the human settlers have a fight on their hands. General Cypher Raige (Smith) is among the most respected of the Ranger Corps: the aliens hunt by smelling fear, but Raige doesn't feel any.

Raige's young son Kitai (Jaden Smith) has grown up in the shadow of his father and is also haunted by having seen an alien devour his older sister. His one aim in life is to gain his father's respect by qualifying for the Rangers. But, as his dad returns from a long mission, Kitai is turned down because of his emotional immaturity.

Father and son fight, but, after talking to his wife, General Raige agrees to bring his son on a routine space voyage in order to get closer to him. Their ship is transporting a captive alien for testing, but when they run into a meteor shower, the ship is forced to crash land on the nearest suitable planet – Earth.

Cypher and Kitai survive the crash, but so does the caged beast, and with his father badly injured, Kitai has to journey through an inhospitable wilderness to find a lost beacon that's their only means of calling for help.

After setting the scene as a stiff-jawed military type, Will cedes the field to his blandly pretty son, who does a tolerably good impression of a teenager under immense stress.

Perhaps that's because Jaden is under immense stress, having been asked to carry a $130m action film before he's out of short pants. But it's not his fault that After Earth is a crashing bore.

After a not very impressive crash sequence, the film settles into a running battle between young Master Smith and a series of CGI monsters, a schema that sounds tiresome, and is.

The script, which I understand may be informed by the colourful tenets of scientology, sounds like extracts from a badly written bible, and Smith Snr disappears behind a one-note portrayal of a thick-nicked emotional catatonic.

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