The coupling of M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith. Let’s just say we would’ve been more excited for this match-up in the early aughts. Now it gives us nothing but trepidation. You see, we’ve been let down before by both Shyamalan and Smith when it comes to the Sci-Fi genre. Shyamalan from his overuse of the “plot twist,” to his extremely Meta mind-bending explanations for the obvious, and let’s not forget the blatant trickery (see: The Village). And well, Smith, who started out with a more than promising career as a sci-fi action hero has churned out more than one dud in his time — and that says nothing about the strange eye roll that occurs whenever we hear about he and his son working on a new project.
It is an uncanny thing. For some odd reason ever since Jaden Smith entered the movie scene, or some could say was actually thrust upon us by his erstwhile parents on a wave of nepotism and a cocksureness that belies his age and possibly his ability, we’ve started to cringe when mention of the two grabbing screen time makes the Hollywood rounds. Is it because we don’t respond well to the mantra of, “Of course my kid is talented, and to prove it I’ll let him take the stage with Justin Bieber and star in an unnecessary remake of the Karate Kid?” Maybe. All of this has oddly taken the elder Smith from the heights of being a bankable movie star, to, well, seemingly putting increased focus on the careers of his children like a sycophantic stage dad, instead of remaining a behind the scenes cheerleader like many a celebrity parent whose child makes their first foray into the industry.
What could set the two perceptions apart, perhaps, could be the success or failure of this movie. If it can finally be said that young star Jaden Smith is worthy of his family’s hype, and if Will Smith can reclaim some of his faded glory as the one guy in town who can save the world without blowing it up.
In this new movie the Smiths play father and son in what we imagine is a dystopian future on a faraway planet. While on some sort of mission, something goes terribly amiss, and they are separated in the most explosive way imaginable. The younger Smith must now fight the unknown to survive using everything in his arsenal, including the teachings and words said to him by his father before their separation.
Visually the movie looks to be reminiscent of most distant future offerings but with the themes of movies past and present coming to the surface. There’s a little of The Road, Enemy Mine, and even The Hunger Games mixed in, and, yes, ostensibly the young warrior in a new place, fighting for survival with a thread of rite of passage is also familiar to James Cameron’s Avatar. But we get the notion that Shyamalan will make this his own even in the details. When listening to the narration of Will Smith, it doesn’t wholly sound like him, or it does, but perhaps it’s Smith’s usual swaggery banter mixed with a dystopian, Bostonian JFK. Listen to those long “ahs” and “rrs.” But it seems that young Jaden is tasked with the more physical challenges and the emotional ones — perhaps a depth of which we’ve yet to see from the youngster.
Some have noticed that right off the bat the trailer gives a big part of the story away, but in various years enduring Shyamalan, to know something first is maybe not a bad thing. This way you know either 1) he’s learning to let go of his plot twist fanaticism, or 2) there’s an even bigger twist waiting. (Groan.) We’re hoping for the former. Smith for his part seems to understand the challenge he and his son face in validating both their stamps on Sci-Fi, so it looks as if he’s in some way either passing or sharing the torch with his son, as it mostly looks like Jaden’s movie to carry. But the outcome will be shared by both, we imagine. We’re going to be cautiously optimistic and hope that it does what it needs to for both the Smith team and Shyamalan. There may be higher stakes for all when it comes to the physical and emotional challenges that After Earth looks to bring. Let’s see if they’re up to the task.