M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, After Earth, follows the story of father and son Cypher and Kitai Raige, played by real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith, respectively. On a routine trip through space, Raige’s transport is damaged, decimating his crew, as well as stranding him and Kitai on Earth – one thousand years after humanity was forced to abandon the planet.
The only other survivor of the crash is a ruthless and unrelenting creature, an Ursa, designed by hostile alien lifeforms to hunt down humans – by smelling fear-induced pheromones. Cypher, a fearless Ranger Corps warrior capable of “ghosting” (allowing him to move undetected by Ursas), is mortally wounded in the crash; as a result, it falls to Kitai to set out into Earth’s wilderness, featuring highly-evolved (and extremely dangerous) animal life, unstable environmental conditions, toxic air – not to mention the freed Ursa – to locate a distress beacon capable of summoning rescue.
Unlike prior Shyamalan films, Columbia Pictures has been subtle about the well-known director’s involvement with After Earth – and for good reason. After a string of underwhelming movies, Shyamalan’s name carries expectations and baggage that could distract from the onscreen After Earth action and drama. For that reason, fans who are hung-up on prior Shyamalan disappointments, and are hoping to see the director return to his Sixth Sense and Unbreakable glory days, will likely be equally disappointed by After Earth. However, that doesn’t mean the film is an outright failure – despite some heavy-handed thematic elements, awkward story beats, and a few stilted performances, After Earth is at times surprisingly engaging with a rich sci-fi setup and several captivating character moments.
The initial After Earth story was conceived by Smith and developed by Shyamalan along with Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) and the result is a solid (albeit thin) narrative that’s aided by slick future tech and an intriguing peek at humankind’s place in the larger universe. Though, once the Raiges land on Earth, the scale of the movie narrows significantly, focusing on the life-or-death race to make contact with rescue, abandoning some of the more interesting science-fiction in favor of a very thorough examination of Kitai’s fears and personal struggles.
Despite the straightforward coming of age tale, the actual After Earth experience is a hit-or-miss jumble of plot-holes, poorly developed tangents, interesting world-building, forced story events, cool (though brief) action set-pieces, and several on-the-nose emotional beats. For some viewers, the story will check enough boxes to be a worthwhile adventure-drama, but plenty of moviegoers will easily be distracted by the film’s numerous narrative shortcomings.
Despite the inclusion of fan-favorite Will Smith, this is Kitai’s story (and Jaden Smith’s movie), pushing the father-figure out of the action spotlight into a subdued support role – left as little more than an onlooker as his son faces one dangerous situation after another. For that reason, the plot point could be a disappointment to viewers hoping to see Smith take center stage, battling evolved Earth animals and alien creatures. Still, his incapacitation has been an essential aspect of the After Earth story from day one – given that the story has always centered on a reluctant son who must overcome his fears to save his father.
Fortunately, Jaden (The Karate Kid) is competent in the role of Kitai – in spite of some awkward voice-over exposition and a few scenes where it’s clear the young actor is still finding his footing. Considering that much of the movie follows Kitai alone in the wilderness, battling CGI creatures, and talking to an off-camera Cypher through a video screen in his suit, Jaden handles the challenges well-enough to ensure that key action scenes are exciting and emotional moments deliver some cathartic payoff.
Smith, on the other hand locks away his whit and charm, dusting off his grim Seven Pounds and I Am Legend demeanor, to play the fearless (and seemingly emotionless) Cypher. The performance is fitting for the film’s subject matter and world but, coupled with his subdued role, the lack of magnetism and trademark one-liners is sure to be a sticking point for fans that were expecting to see a new “Will Smith movie.” Instead, like Jaden, Will has to sell the performance in solo scenes instead of sharing exchanges with another performer – further complicated by the hurdle of being stuck in one place for most of the runtime. Ultimately, a few of Will’s scenes are forced and melodramatic, but overall, the character (and the actor) present worthwhile contributions to the larger After Earth story – elevating what could have been a bland exposition machine or sound board for Kitai into a empathetic and effective addition.
Even though Will handed leading-man duties to younger and nimbler Jaden this round, adrenaline junkies will likely be underwhelmed by the amount of large-scale action in After Earth. There are a number of cool CGI sequences and genuinely tense encounters but most of the Kitai versus nature fights are very brief, relying heavily on one or two slow-motion shots to sell each sequence. Similarly, the camera work in a few of the more high-energy scenes is too frantic to fully appreciate the actual threats that Kitai encounters – especially since, despite Cypher’s numerous warnings, the film never really depicts an interesting example of how the Earth creatures have evolved. Unless by “evolved” Shyamalan just means “bigger” and “angrier.”
After Earth is not playing in 3D but the film is screening in IMAX theaters. Sadly, there’s very little reason to pay the upcharge this round. Whereas Oblivion made smart use of its post-apocalyptic Earth setting, which was further enhanced by IMAX audio and screen size, the After Earth visuals are much more restrained – with only a few shots that stand to benefit from a premium presentation.
Overall, After Earth is an extremely uneven film that is bogged down by a number of setbacks, but for moviegoers who are intrigued by the initial premise and aren’t expecting a return to form for Shyamalan, it’s not the throwaway disaster that certain viewers might claim. There are some genuinely engaging elements and the larger narrative universe is ripe for exploration – with some really interesting sci-fi ideas that could make for even better adventures down the line. Unfortunately, After Earth is too limited and muted to fully-incorporate the larger world and concepts it presents, resulting in a pretty standard character story that only offers brief moments of excitement as well as father and son drama.
If you’re still on the fence about After Earth, check out the trailer below:
After Earth runs 100 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.
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