This summer, the When Can I watch column has been preoccupied with engaging blockbusters derived from comic books (Iron Man 3
), children’s novels (Epic
), and popular TV and movie series (Star Trek Into Darkness
). So I’m glad we’re departing from the familiar to tackle an unusual movie with no familiar source material but more than enough hooks to catch your kids’ attention.
, after all, has an extremely recognizable star in Jaden Smith – if your children, like mine, enjoyed the Karate Kid
remake – and enough eye-catching science-fiction imagery to construct a winning trailer. My 9-year-old son, after seeing a commercial during one of his favorite Nick Jr. shows, came running in to ask if he could see After Earth
, and my immediate, honest response was, "I don’t know."
Unusual for both of us, given my line of work.
I’m banking on the fact that your kids might be pushing to see After Earth in theaters. And now that I’ve seen it, I honestly think that you should. The whole family should go. So, let’s master the art of "ghosting," take an interplanetary journey, crash onto a desolate planet (which looks a lot like ours) and figure out when you can watch After Earth with your kids.
Green Lights: "Do you want to see if you can ghost?"
After Earth is a family affair … particularly if your last name happens to be Smith. Constructed by Will Smith as a vehicle for both he and his son, Jaden (who shared the screen in The Pursuit of Happyness), it is a safe, accessible sci-fi adventure set in a distant future where mankind has deserted our planet because it has become uninhabitable. Basically, we’ve killed Mother Earth, and humanity now exists … well, elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean we’re now safe. Vicious alien creatures named The Ursa still hunt, and we rely on warriors like Cypher (Will Smith) to protect us.
As you can imagine, being Cypher’s son is a tall order. The man casts a long shadow, and it’s there that we find Kitai (Jaden Smith), the quiet, determined cadet in a space ranger program who’s desperately trying to live up to his father’s elevated expectations, even if he’s not ready to become the soldier his father currently is.
Parents reading this probably already are connecting to a lot of what’s been said – and father-and-son duo Cypher and Kitai haven’t even crashed on Future Earth yet. Once grounded (thanks to interference by an asteroid storm), the son who’s deficient in his father’s eyes must find the courage to embark on a journey into enemy territory and retrieve a beacon. If he doesn’t, he and his father likely will die.
Director M. Night Shyamalan and screenwriter Gary Whitta make a wise decision rooting much of After Earth in the developing (or healing) relationship between actual father-and-son duo Will and Jaden Smith. Without this emotional component, the movie would be a passable but forgettable sci-fi adventure that lacks a noteworthy set piece but coasts on expensive effects.
As they did on Happyness, however, the Smiths bring a layer of comfort and familiarity to the relationship on screen, with Night pulling back just enough on the on-screen violence and danger to keep After Earth accessible to sons and daughters who want to take this in with a parent.
After Earth very much becomes a teen-centered adventure, marked by a young boy’s struggle to overcome fears (he’s described as "intuitive," which is code word for meek) and live up to his father’s expectations. The sci-fi elements are basic – veteran audiences might find it boring – but it will work on kids who thrive on Kitai’s fight to act independent, and to overcome fear.
After my screening, I described this to a friend as Oblivion
for a younger crowd. It has a mythology, like Tom Cruise’s movie, but it’s safer and more accessible for kids. Just not TOO young. Why? Let’s get into that in the next section.
Red Flags: "You are going to retrieve that beacon, or we are going to die."
The reason Kitai must strike out on his own when he and his father crash on Future Earth is because his father is badly wounded in the wreckage, and he can’t accompany his son on the quest to retrieve the beacon. Smith basically takes a backseat to his own son, letting Jaden carry his own (more subdued) summer blockbuster. Again, the scenes with a wounded Cypher aren’t brutal, but he attempts a futuristic artery bypass, which keeps failing. It might unnerve young kids.
As might a memory that haunts the family in After Earth. One reason they fear the Ursa is because an alien creature claimed the life of Kitai’s older sister (Zoe Kravitz). Kitai thought he could have helped his sister in the attack, and his inaction bothers him to this day. Shyamalan shows the attack in intervals, and it can be a little harsh. Not too bad, but enough to warn off young kids.
The Ursa is the big threat, and it surfaces – as any monster should – in the final act. It’s kind of a combination of the Queen from Alien and a weird spider-lizard combo, spitting acid and lunging at Kitai when he’s close to setting off the beacon. This sequence comes off more as thrilling than terrifying, with young Jaden triumphing (sorry, spoilers) and After Earth gliding to a happy Hollywood ending.
At its worst, the worthy outweighs the wary, and so …
After Earth surprised me. What looked like an aggressive, hard-to-follow space opera turned out to be a streamlined, engaging sci-fi survival story tailored to a young actor kids should be able to relate with.
It has a strong father-son hook that I think will lure several families into theaters, and it pays off with admirable effects and a mythology young kids might want to explore further.
I’m taking my 9-year-old to see it. I think he’s going to devour the story. And while I recognize that it might be too simple and deliberate for adults, I think adolescent kids (boys specifically) are going to love this.
I’d say kids 9 and up can handle what’s on screen in After Earth, and I think parents should go with them to expand on some of the topics raised by the story and script.
And as always, if you do take your kids to the movie, please let me know how it goes!
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.