M. Night Shyamalan has a lot to make up for in terms of his recent films. They have been nonsensical, boring, and, at times, poorly directed. The Shyamalan of today is a far cry from the man who exploded onto the scene with his evocative stories and deliberate direction. Considering how badly damaged the Shyamalan brand is, it’s no wonder his name doesn’t appear anywhere on the posters, and viewers will probably gasp in surprise when the credits roll. Thankfully, After Earth stanches the bleeding, and proves once again that Shyamalan is a capable director. And while the film is more or less predictable at every turn, audiences will have little substance to complain about.
In the future, Earth has been lost to the devastation caused by mankind. A sizeable population of survivors managed to escape the planet and find refuge on another world. Unfortunately, a hostile alien race attacked the humans by unleashing a terrifying creature called Ursas. These blind monsters are ferocious and they detect humans via the pheromones humans release when they’re scared. Fortunately, one man developed the ability to contain his fear, rendering himself invisible to Ursas, making him the perfect hunter. His name is Cypher Raige (Will Smith). His son is Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), who wants nothing more than to become a Ranger like his father and prove his worth.
Near the beginning of the film, father and son travel with a complement of Rangers to transport an Ursa for Ranger training. Unfortunately, the space vessel becomes badly damaged en route, forcing the ship to land on the nearest planet: Earth. During the crash which splits the ship, Cypher is crippled, leaving Kitai the only one who can retrieve a homing beacon from the other part of the ship that landed 60 miles away. Making matters worse are the natural predators of a human-less Earth as well as the unnatural predator that may have escaped the destroyed craft.
From the somewhat silly backstory, it’s obvious that Shyamalan, who co-wrote, isn’t quite over his fascination of telling gigantic stories. In fact, the prologue is unnecessary and won’t instill any confidence in audiences who are expecting a serious story. Couple that concern with some poor design choices for the society of the future, and expectations will be set very low. Thankfully, all of this only serves to set the film up for success.
By and large, the film doesn’t feel like a Shyamalan-directed film. It lacks all of his signature camera angles and movements, and there’s nary a long take. Instead, the direction is utilitarian, serving to show only what’s needed rather than add any kind of subtext. The only discernible fingerprint left by Shyamalan is the overall theme of the film, which is about a family trying to survive an extraordinary situation. It’s a welcome reminder and is handled nicely in the film.
After Earth definitely feels like a way for Will Smith to hand off the baton to his son, which works well for the story. Cypher is essentially trapped and can only provide advice via voice while Kitai does all of the action. And while audiences will probably wish an older actor played the role rather than a 15-year-old with a squeaky voice, Jaden Smith manages to carry the film and is only annoying in some parts. It’s Will Smith who surprises with his subdued performance. While he does have a few dramatic outbursts, he’s mostly restrained and it’s refreshing to see him act rather than mug for the camera.
The plot is very straightforward and there won’t be any surprises, but for a story like this, twists are unnecessary. With that said, viewer satisfaction will really depend on how well the actors convey their struggles and growth throughout the film. While Jaden Smith gets the job done, a more capable actor might have kept the film from feeling like it’s going through the motions just to get to its inevitable conclusion.
After Earth is an adequate film. It takes no risks and suffers no failures, but it also doesn’t reward audiences with anything special. The biggest problems the film has are mostly plot holes related to the gimmicks employed by the movie. For instance, if Ursas can only detect humans via smell, why not just wear suits that fully enclose the human body, like a hazardous materials suit? Then humans could slay Ursas with impunity. Furthermore, Ursas must have some other sense to detect the world around them other than smelling fear. If they can navigate terrain, why can’t they detect a human standing near them regardless of pheromones? Points like these, however, are insignificant to the story at large, and if audiences can get through the first act, then a competent film for the whole family awaits them.