Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Will Smith, Jaiden Smith
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 100 minutes
Somewhere in the far-flung future, Ranger Col. Cypher Reige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (played by Smith’s real life son, Jaiden), struggle to survive on a hostile, alien planet. The only survivors after their military transport crashed after encountering a freak asteroid storm, their hopeS for survival rest in Kitai successfully retrieving an emergency beacon to may day for help, guided from the wreckage by his crippled father. Between Kitai and the life saving beacon is over a hundred kilometres of deadly wilderness, filled with giant, alien predators, poisonous parasites, and, just for fun, a living nightmare engineered for the sole purpose of hunting and killing human beings. The planet the two desperate souls find themselves trying to survive? Earth.
From director M. Night Shyamalan (yes, that M. Night Shyamalan), After Earth is another big budget science fiction tale that tells a story of humanity after they’ve abandoned their home planet. This particular yarn takes place a thousand years after the human race has migrated from a failing planet, seeking refuge on a distant world named Nova Prime. Once there though, they discover they aren’t the only ones interested in this new world, and an alien race unleashes the Ursa, a race of genetically engineered monsters who hunt humans by scenting the pheromones released when they’re afraid (as well as other fluids you’d lose control of when being chased by a hungry reptile-bug the size of a semi-truck, I’m guessing). The Rangers, an elite military unit who lead the migration from Earth, discover a tactic called Ghosting, where they can arrest the biological process of fear, thereby becoming invisible to the nightmarish Ursa. One ghosting Ranger of particular legend is Cypher Reige.
The movie opens with Cypher’s son, Kitai, failing to advance from Cadet to Ranger despite outstanding physical prowess and excellent classroom test scores. This news comes the day Col. Cypher is returning home, presumably from some military campaign, and we quickly learn that the good colonel’s relationship with his son is strained and the only way he can relate to his troubled offspring is the same way he relates to the troops under his command. As the movie progresses, we learn there’s a lot more baggage weighing the two down since Kitai’s older sister Senshi was killed by an Ursa while protecting Kitai. In an attempt to try to improve their already shaky relationship, Cypher takes Kitai on a training mission (with a captive Ursa as part of the cargo) until they run smack dab into a nasty asteroid storm with their name on it. And the only place they can find to set down is the quarantined planet Earth, where as Cypher tells his terrified son, everything has evolved to kill humans. And remember that pesky Ursa? Well, it turns out it survived the crash as well.
After Earth boasts excellent special effects and a lot of time and energy went into imagining how human culture might have evolved a thousand years in the future on another planet. Actors even deliver their dialogue in unique accents. The Smiths deliver what’s required of them with convincing sincerity, and you have to think that they’re able to tap into their real life relationship to help project their on-screen one, both the tenderness and the tension. And while Aidan is still living in his father’s shadow performance wise, you can see that he has a lot of the same potential. Even the little humour between the two seems more genuine.
The problem with After Earth isn’t that it’s a bad movie-it isn’t-its just that isn’t memorable. It isn’t the first movie to deal with humanity after Earth has been abandoned. It isn’t even the first one this year (Tom Cruise’s Oblivion flirted with that concept more than a little), so we’ve seen this story before, but After Earth doesn’t put too much of a fresh twist on it. And I would have liked to see a little more back story on Humanity’s flight to Nova Prime. Did we flee Mother Earth because her resources were exhausted and she was left a black, desolate wasteland as one early scene implies? If so, Mother Nature made a pretty sweet comeback in a thousand years, refilling her oceans and repopulating the planet with giant trees, eagles and leeches with poisonous bites (I’m pretty sure that took millions of years before the human race destroyed everything). And if that’s the case, what do we make of Cypher’s warning to Kitai, that everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans? If Mother Nature did turn on people (and honestly, who could blame her at this point), I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little flashback into that. And what of these mysterious aliens that bread the Ursa to exterminate humanity? Don’t they deserve more than just two sentences during a monologue in the entire movie?
I’m a big fan of Shyamalan’s early work. I consider The Sixth Sense one of the best crafted pieces of entertainment in the modern blockbuster age. I liked Unbreakable and I enjoyed Signs despite the religious overtones. The Village ranks as my second favourite Shyamalan movie (behind only Sense) and I even liked Lady in the Water, despite the butt kicking it took from the media (despite my affection for it, I completely understood and appreciated the criticism it took). Up until 2008’s The Happening, I considered Shaymalan one of Hollywood’s finest storytellers, and I could forgive his obsession with plot twists reserved for the end of his movies, but Happening was an unmitigated disaster and I don’t even want to talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender (and my contempt for Airbender pales in comparison to fans of the original cartoon series, they wanted Shaymalan’s head-the movie was so poorly received and failed so miserably at the box office that Disney quickly scrapped plans to launch a new film franchise). So I was pleased to see that while After Earth isn’t up to par with Shaymalan’s work before Lady, it’s definitely superior to Happening and Airbender (though those two pieces of cinematic excrement don’t exactly set the bar high). My biggest complaint about After Earth is that it didn’t make much of an effort to explore the scope of its own potential. There was probably a lot of interesting things hiding in that unexplored space. But After Earth is still mildly entertaining and will probably appeal to die-hard science fiction fans (although they’ll also most likely be its biggest critics). But despite it’s shortcomings, the one thing of hope I took away was that it might be the first step to redemption for someone who I used to consider a master storyteller before he fell from grace.