By Roger Thomas
Thursday, July 11, 2013 —
Since its release there has been a lot of buzz about the small box office gross for “After Earth.” (At the time I finished this review, the film had grossed $56 million in 20 days. “Iron Man 3” made that much in one day.) It seems the film has not made money as quickly as most of Will Smith’s films have. Allow me to offer a clarification. This is not a Will Smith movie. He is a supporting character in a film centered on the protagonist played by Will’s son, Jaden Smith.
While there is much shock around a Smith film that is not rolling in the dollars, no one seems to be writing about the fact that the director, M. Night Shyamalan has had bigger successes as well. Several of his films have been quite lucrative: “The Sixth Sense” ($293 million), “Signs” ($227 million) and “The Village” ($114 million). Shyamalan has not been as successful lately as he used to be; his adaptation of “The Last Airbender” cost more than it made. But if you are going to blame Smith for the box office struggles of “After Earth,” I think Shyamalan should be included in the discussion. He has, not so long ago, made movies that filled theaters.
With all that said, I regret that “After Earth” has not found a larger audience. It is a solid film. The story is not epic, but focuses on one family, particularly a son and father, but the mother and sister have significant roles as well in the plot. Ultimately it is a small simple story, told well.
It is not as strong a sci-fi film as the new “Star Trek,” but it is vastly superior to the very similar “Oblivion” from earlier this year. Both “Oblivion” and “After Earth” tell of our planet in the distant future. “Oblivion” seemed to be rehashed elements from other films; “After Earth” successfully tells a new story.
Here are some of the strengths of “After Earth.” Visually, the film is almost always amazing. Stunning creatures abound, settings are exquisite, and the crash scene reminds viewers that anything visual is possible these days.
There are some strong moments in the screenplay, and it even boasts the best two lines of closing dialogue I have heard this year. The flashbacks in the film work well to give the story more resonance and character development. Twists and surprises do not seem forced but natural for the development of the story. And the ending satisfied. (Unlike“Oblivion” that left me with a feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction.)
One other strength is the chemistry between father and son Smiths. The early scenes they have together seem very natural and true.
The one thing that was missing for me was a surprise ending. Director Shyamalan used to play that card a lot. His more recent films have not had the twists of his earlier works (“Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs” and “The Village)” but I still hoped this one might. I had even speculated to a friend on what the twist might be. But alas, there is no climatic surprise, just a satisfying ending that I endorse.
After seeing this film with my young son, I listened to him retell the story of the film to someone else. He told it with great enthusiasm and detail. Then he praised the film and highly recommended it. Perhaps taking after his father, he is becoming quite the critic. “After Earth” is not one of the best films of this year so far, but as my son Henry said, “It is so good that you should see it.”
Roger Thomas reviews films for The Stanly News & Press and thesnaponline.com.