Review: After Earth
Note: This article was previously published at Movie Mezzanine.
M. Night Shyamalan is a name that used to be associated with twisty, tense thrillers about individuals encountering the supernatural and the alien. Over the past few years, however, it’s become a name that’s associated with messy, boring, and at times downright stupid movies about individuals encountering the supernatural and the alien. The director’s latest effort, After Earth, once again follows people struggling to fight strange creatures and a hostile environment, but after an uneven first act it emerges as a fairly enjoyable (if entirely predictable) fable about fathers and sons that indicates he’s still got some talent left in him.
The story is fairly straightforward. A thousand years in the future, a group of soldiers called Rangers protect mankind’s new planetary settlement from giant blind monsters called Ursa that track their prey through pheromones—they literally smell fear. The most famous of these Rangers, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is notorious for being so fearless that he’s invisible to Ursa, allowing him to “ghost” right past them. His teenage son Kitai (real-life son Jaden Smith), however, is so crippled by past trauma that he’s deemed too emotional for the field.
He and his father are on their way to a routine training exercise when their ship breaks apart and crashes on Earth, which now suffers from extreme fluctuations in temperature and a low-oxygen atmosphere. Oh, and it’s populated by a lot of very dangerous animals, including an Ursa that was in captivity aboard their ship. With Cypher critically injured, Kitai has to travel 100 kilometers over the open terrain to retrieve an emergency beacon from the tail section of the plane. Most of the movie involves him running, jumping and fighting his way through one threat after another, with his father’s voice guiding him to his goal and helping him learn to control his fear.
The opening 20 minutes of After Earth—“Before Earth,” if you will—is such a mess of clunky exposition, embarrassing dialogue and bland cinematography that it nearly dooms the movie from the start. There are interesting ideas at work here, but they’re covered in a quick opening voiceover by Jaden Smith that raises more questions than it answers. Why didn’t we settle on a planet not inhabited by monsters? Why do we have the technology of interstellar travel but no weapons beyond a shape-shifting blade and suits that change color–was it out of fear that a large military-industrial complex might lead to the repetition of past mistakes? Why are we opening with a voiceover by someone who’s clearly still going through puberty? These questions are pushed aside in favor of some cringe-inducing scenes in which Kitai and Cypher yell at each other around the dinner table, the former ashamed of his inability to be promoted to full Ranger status and the latter frustrated by his son’s inability to rein in his emotions.
By the time they crash on Earth, it’s as if the writers have given up trying to ground their characters in any sort of relatable context. Kitai sits scared stiff in his seat while Cypher goes to the cockpit and starts talking about the “graviton” and “mass expansion” and then somehow they’re crashing even though moments earlier someone states there’s literally a “one in a million chance” this could happen. Earth is where the real meat of the film takes place, and everything before that just feels like an incoherent rush to get there.
That Shyamalan is able to overcome this beginning and make the rest of the film somewhat enjoyable is a minor miracle and a testament to his talent. Once our duo arrives on Earth, the film quickly finds its footing, following Kitai as he races to get to the beacon before his father dies or he runs out of oxygen. Free from the pesky constraint of having his characters interact in the same room (he really doesn’t seem to know how to make interiors visually exciting), Shyamalan unleashes his inner showman, capturing wide vistas and allowing the camera to roam freely alongside Kitai in the wilderness. Jaden Smith lacks the charisma of his father and spends most of the movie wearing the same soured expression, but he throws himself into the physical demands of the production with ease, and he has plenty of time left to grow into a more nuanced actor. His father, meanwhile, leaves his usual wise-cracking smartass behind and delivers an unusually understated performance, conveying more through his eyes and tone of voice than dialogue.
The conflict between the two of them almost always feel forced—do you really need to have an emotionally charged conversation about past mistakes in the middle of a life-or-death situation where every second counts?—but After Earth pulls it together by never straying too far from its central theme. It’s yet another post-9/11 exploration of fear and how our enemies are only as terrifying as we allow them to be, but unlike others of its ilk (I’m looking at you, Iron Man 3) it follows a clear thematic through line.
All of the emotional beats of After Earth are rooted in the same struggle to conquer individual fear, from terror in the face of alien monsters to private worries that we’ve failed the people we love the most. Sure, it’s a little heavy-handed, but in a time when it’s rare for big-budget blockbusters to really be about anything, let alone be consistent about it, it’s nice to see a movie at least attempt to wrap its narrative around a clear idea. It’s a simple modern-day fable, but it mostly works.
It’s a flawed endeavor, but After Earth is more successful than any other film so far this summer at inserting weighty themes into an entertaining popcorn movie. The obstacles Kitai faces feel just pressing enough to be thrilling without allowing the film to drown completely in its own self-seriousness—this is an adventure clearly aimed at families with older children, so aside from a few icky shots of Cypher whipping up a makeshift artery there isn’t anything too scary here. As a filmmaker, Shyamalan has always been best at crafting suspense from the unknown, whether it’s the nightly visits of the dead in The Sixth Sense or the mysterious alien presence in Signs.
The majority of After Earth is ideally suited to his gifts, as Kitai progresses from one goal to another, never certain which threat he’ll encounter next. One sequence late in the film finds him working his way through a maze of dark cave passageways, and Jaden Smith’s wide-eyed terror combined with the camera’s smooth tilt up to his enemy sell a jump scare that’s telegraphed well in advance due largely to technical proficiency alone. He might not be the best with dialogue, but when it comes to creating tension, Shyamalan’s no hack.
And while it’s never as masterfully handled as something like Beasts of the Southern Wild, this vision of a father desperately trying to guide his child through a hostile world still carries weight, largely due to its hopeful insistence that despite our mistakes, the next generation can still make it through whatever comes its way. In the face of growing concerns about climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it’s nice to be reminded that the future is not to be feared, only dealt with, one step at a time.