Our own Surly Badger pointed us towards a highly amusing Reddit thread that discusses the possible ties After Earth may have to Scientology. The really sad thing, though, is that the thread itself is a lot more fun than the movie. Part of that is tone and expectation, but a big part of it is at least if this were a religious screed, somebody would care enough to try.
There are two problems here, beyond the whole “not caring” thing. The first is the fact that this is a science fiction movie in name only. Everything “science fictiony” about it is a crust; by all accounts originally the movie was intended to take place in the modern day with a young boy fighting his way through the wilderness after a car wreck.
But apparently that plus Will Smith isn’t enough to get a movie made these days, so some SF parts were bolted on. Now it’s a millenium later and we live somewhere else! Now our heroes are space rangers! Now he’s fighting in an Earth that hates people! Now he’s got a goofy survival suit that can fly and has Spidey-Sense, but you can still freeze to death in! And now, of course, this is a dour endeavor, because God forbid a dumb action movie would have a sense of fun. It’s all so unoriginal and uninteresting even the movie seems bored with it.
The other problem is they scaled up the backstory but not the actual scale of the movie. It’s still a small, simple survival story, and the end result is that parts of the movie feel missing. All of this would be forgivable if Will Smith cared at all, but his father figure is so remote and frankly kind of a tool that you’re kind of hoping he bleeds to death and his kid finds a nice accounting job or something. In fact, the father-son dynamic, in addition to not creating any emotional stake with the viewer, gets in the way of the movie. You find yourself wondering if a story about an uncaring, hostile father pushing his son to “be a man” has any unintentional subtext to it.
M. Night Shyamalan is capable, but he’s got nothing to work with, and Jaden Smith fighting CGI just isn’t interesting because we don’t care about his character. You kind of feel for the kid; he’s talented, and honestly there’s some charisma there, but it feels like choices are being made for him, and that he’d take a different tack if he were left to his own devices.
Ultimately what you have is a movie that’s what happens when you put talented people in a room and tell them “You get paychecks regardless so, eh, do whatever.” If you’re looking for a ridiculous SF movie made by a Scientologist that you’ll at least remember in two weeks, may I recommend Battlefield Earth?