After Earth is a new movie starring Will Smith. For many fans, Smith can do no wrong, particularly in an action movie. From Bad Boys to Independence Day to the Men In Black franchise, Smith has proven that he has the chops to carry an action movie with a blend of humor, muscle and humanity. In his upcoming film, After Earth, due June 2013, Smith returns to the familiar ground of the science-fiction action adventure—but takes some risks too.
The first is the casting of Jaden Smith, his son—simply because that means Smith the Younger can actually handle the role that his movie-star daddy (and film producer) has cast him in. The second big risk is that it looks like the movie’s spotlight is firmly on Jaden Smith (as Smith’s onscreen son Kitai Raige), rather than his more established action-adventure-hero father. Jaden is no stranger to fight sequences or the starring role, having taken on the Ralph Macchio role in the update of the 1980’s classic The Karate Kid. But the box office in this movie will decide whether audiences who come for Will can accept Jaden as a substitute.
After Earth also has a strong, if familiar premise: Earth, having become uninhabitable about, oh, 2013, is abandoned by those few who can make it out to a new colony called Nova Prime in the unspecified (but, given the spaceship technology, clearly far-off) future. Will Smith plays Lt. Cypher Raige, the archetypal soldier-away-at-war/neglectful father who’s been away for almost all of Kitai’s life. But the family drama is sidelined when Cypher and Raige’s spacecraft is damaged by a freak asteroid storm, forcing a crash landing on the mysterious, dangerous planet once known as…Earth. And here’s where audiences might feel cheated, if Jaden can’t come through: the crash landing traps a critically injured Cypher in the cockpit, while son Raige faces the now-primordial landscape of Earth to find a rescue beacon that might save them.
Now while Smith Jr. might prove more than capable of handling the majority of the movie’s cooler action sequences, the real risk taken here is the film’s director, M. Night Shyamalan. The director of the Oscar-nominated ghost-story The Sixth Sense was once compared to Hitchcock, only to slide further and further in the box office and in the reviews with every subsequent film. What were once considered marks of Shyamalan’s auteurship (dim cinematography, glacial pacing, twist endings) became instead predictable crutches that were overused in every film. In After Earth, Shyamalan wisely shares the writing duties with Stephan Gaghan, an established screenwriter who might be able to breathe life into Shyamalan’s often sterile filmscapes.
The early buzz is uniformly favorable towards Will Smith, who has delivered this kind of product before, but a little more mixed towards Jaden, whose sudden stardom seems to divide Will Smith fans. But the real consensus is that After Earth is Shyamalan’s to make or break; if he can’t shake out of his slump, audiences might not give him (yet another) another chance.
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