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After Earth

Year: 2013
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Producer: Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith
Writer: Garry Whitta, Will Smith, M Night Shyamalan
Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo

You can't admit in cine-literate company that no matter how revolting Battlefield Earth was thanks to the it being John Travolta's passion project to push Scientology, it was far from the worst sci-fi film in Hollywood.

And I've always stood by my liking for Waterworld no matter how maligned it is even now, nearly 20 years later as I write this. If you ask me, the stories about production problems, wrecked sets and the supposed falling out between star Costner and director Kevin Reynolds still overshadow a very cool and entertaining action sci-fi thriller.

So after going into After Earth expecting the biggest turkey this side of Cutthroat Island, I was pleasantly surprised. Only one criticism you've heard about it – the 'acting' done by son-of-producer Jaden Smith – is true.

Maybe people rejected it because it just felt like the whim of a powerful star throwing his weight around in Hollywood, casting his own son despite the kid having no talent and (in a strange parallel to Battlefield Earth) having a supposed message about Scientology.

Smith Jr is indeed as expressive as a wooden plank, but the design of the world humanity now inhabits a thousand years after Earth has become uninhabitable is visually striking. Smith Sr is effective, barely cracking a smile as the senior military figure who always keeps his cool and who treats the son who just wants his love and acceptance as a failed recruit.

The high concept theme is front and centre in the trailer – even though danger is real, fear is a choice. It's important because the crazy animals that are now attacking humanity in its new home – Ursas – can only sense us thanks to the pheromones we give off when we're scared. Refuse to give in to fear and we're invisible to them, letting us attack them undetected in a technique called 'ghosting'.

Cypher (Smith Sr), a general and a veteran of the war against the Ursas, is a master at it, and when he returns home from a mission on the day his son Kitai (Smith Jr) fails to make it into the elite ranger corps, wife/mother (Sophie Okonedo) convinces Cypher to take Kitai on his next trip to bond with the boy and help salve his wounded pride.

On the journey, complete with an Ursa on board, the ship runs into an asteroid field. In the ensuing damage, she crash lands on Earth with only Kitai, Cypher and the Ursa surviving. Cypher is badly wounded, and when the pair realise the beacon that will summon help is in another part of the ship kilometres away, Kitai has to go and find it as his father guides him remotely.

And the problem isn't just that the bloodthirsty Ursa is still loose (and you just know Kitai is going to come up against it in the climax), but in the ensuing thousand years since humans left Earth, every other life form has evolved to attack and kill their former overlords.

There are shades of other movies all over the place like the abandoned world idea of Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, but almost nothing distinctive of director M Night Shyamalan. Both he and Sony probably agreed to put the script on screen as is without any personal flourishes, hoping it would restore him to the box office glory he lost long ago and make its money back.

But it certainly wasn't a smash, and after all the other costs they never tell you about it probably never passed into the black, but like many notorious flops it wasn't the financial turkey you've heard, only just falling short of doubling its money worldwide.

But the perception stuck, and along with Smurfs 2 and a couple of others, it prompted Sony to constrict spending to such a degree the studio had almost nothing to release the following year.

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