During ‘After Earth’ is a good time to check your cellphone

By Gary Clift

I have a new index scheme for judging general release movies. The worse they are, the greater number of ticket-holder cell phones will be lit up during the showing.

The little lights glaring in one’s face from phones farther forward in the theater indicate that their owners aren’t interested in what’s on the big screen. It is also true that folks hooked on “smart” phones tend to be folks most influenced by the publicity campaigns selling the stupidest films.

This last weekend had a high cinematic cell rating. On Friday I complained aloud to a woman a row ahead of me that her phone screen was stabbing me in the eye. Unfortunately my mention of the phone reminded the guy next to me that he could look at his, which he immediately did.

On Saturday it was even worse. I suspect close to one in ten of the people who with me attended a showing of “After Earth” had their cell phones on during the movie. But I couldn’t really blame them. One needed additional stimuli to keep from nodding off.

“After Earth” was directed (and co-written) by M. Knight Shyamalan. This talented director has suffered a much-recognized career slide. We first knew him as the director of “The Sixth Sense,” in which Bruce Willis met a kid who could see dead people. Shyamalan’s movies following that one were “Unbreakable” (in 2000), “Signs” (about crop circles, in 2002), “The Village” (about a strangely isolated rural community, in 2004), “Lady in the Water” (about a storybook character in an apartment complex’s swimming pool, in 2006), “The Happening” (about what, I never knew—in 2008), and “The Last Airbender” (in 2010).

At least one can make out the basic story in “After Earth,” a story that has been credited to Will Smith. He stars as the General, a hero of future battles between humans and the giant insects—blind and fear-sensing—who invade and take-over Earth. Smith’s real son, Jaden, plays his son in the film, Katai. K is guilt-ridden over the death, years before, of his sister, who was killed by a bug as she defended her sibling.

Now Pop is about to retire. But first he’ll take K on one last assignment. That plan explodes with their spaceship. Two parts of it are dumped 100 kilometers (about sixty-two miles) apart on the surface of the planet the insects chased man from. Pop’s legs are broken, and so K has to take what’s left of the breath-right pills and travel through forest and down river to the emergency beacon in the other half of what’s left of the ship.

Pop offers advice along the way, watching pictures of what K sees until their communications are interrupted. The grimacing kid has to fight his fear and take solace in his flashbacks as he outruns orangutans and a later sympathetic giant-eagle, spears tigers, and avoids freezing to death. Then toward the end, as cut backs to the General show him dying, K has a giant bug on his trail. Oh my!

It is surprising how much we come to sympathize with the boy. But the threats to him seem contrived. And at ten bucks a ticket, I think we have a right to expect more than a few minutes of tension about a space bug’s stalking. But that’s all there is here.

Otherwise all is cliche. “After Earth” marks a continuation in the decline of Shyamalan’s powers as a popular storyteller. Probably it does less to make us uneasy about the Smiths. Will has always made good and really bad films.

You could look the titles of them up on the web. Use your “smart” phone. Just don’t use it during a movie anybody else really wants to see.

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