Once anointed “the next Spielberg,” director M. Night Shyamalan has failed to impress much of anyone with his past few movies. After the success of Signs in 2002, his films have continued to decline, perhaps bottoming out with The Happening and The Last Airbender in 2008 and 2010, respectively. For his new film, After Earth, the director tries something he hasn’t done since he first exploded onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense… he lets someone else write the script.
Actually, the film was inspired by a story idea of superstar Will Smith, who thought it might make a great film for him and his son Jaden. The original idea had to do with a father and son on a camping trip in the deep forest. After the father is injured in a car crash, the son must brave the wild to reach help.
That simple story has since grown into a sci-fi fantasy that takes place approximately one thousand years after the abandonment of Earth. The human race has settled on a distant planet, a move supervised by a military unit called Rangers. The father has become Cypher Raige, a legend among the Rangers. Years of suppressing all his fears and emotion have left Cypher as a cold and distant father figure for his son Kitai, who has tried desperately and unsuccessfully to become a legendary Ranger like his father. Encouraged by his wife, Cypher decides to take his son along on a mission that was intended to be uneventful, but turns into something far more.
The car crash of the original story becomes a spaceship crash landing on Earth, a planet now overrun by creatures who have evolved to hunt and kill humans. Cypher has broken both of his legs in the crash and the emergency beacon kept in the cockpit has been destroyed. Now their only hope for survival is to trek one hundred kilometers across the dangerous landscape to retrieve the secondary beacon stored in the ship’s tail section which became detached from the rest of the ship during the crash. Unable to go himself due to his injuries, Cypher sends his young son out in the wild alone, guiding him only through the communicator attached to his wrist. In addition to the indigenous wildlife, Kitai may also have to deal with a deadly alien being that they were transporting, which now appears to have escaped.
The big question I had leaving the theater was: why Earth? The fact that the planet they crash landed on was Earth is presented like it is a big deal in the movie and, of course, it’s right there in the title. One would expect this would be for a specific reason, perhaps a reason revealed in an infamous M. Night Shyamalan twist. Alas, other than giving them the opportunity to tell us this is Earth, there is no reason they couldn’t have landed on any random jungle planet.
The plot is simple and the movie plays that way. Its lead character simply needs to get from point A to point B without getting killed by creatures, a plot device that could have worked if any of these creature fights would have been the least bit entertaining. Unfortunately, they are not.
Entertainment is really what is missing from After Earth and nowhere is this better personified than in the character of the father played by Will Smith. His character’s lack of emotion takes the endless charm of one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars and, well, puts an end to it. Cypher is a very wooden and dull character about whom we wouldn’t even care whether he survived or not if we didn’t innately care for any character played by Will the actor. As Cypher’s ambitious son, Will’s real-life ambitious son Jaden also lacks much of any personality in this film. He wears the same boring facial expression on his face throughout the entire film and he fails miserably when attempting to speak with an accent, an accent that was not necessary to the story at all.
Perhaps this is the first of his failed films for which we can’t really fault director Shyamalan. He does what he can with the script credited to Gary Whitta, but there just isn’t much there. I’m convinced that the director has a big comeback movie in him, but unfortunately After Earth is not it.
After Earth is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.” There are definitely some scary images and things jump out at you suddenly throughout the film. Younger viewers may need to be kept away.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of After Earth.