By Dan Metcalf
Clipper Film Correspondent
After Earth (Columbia/Sony)
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.
Starring Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman.
Written by Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
When M. Night Shyamalan splashed onto the scene in 1999 with the runaway hit The Sixth Sense, it seemed he was headed for great things. He showed he was more than a one-trick pony with the release of Unbreakable, Signs and The Village over the next few years. But then, things for Shyamalan started going downhill – fast. After marginal success of The Village came the mostly-ignored Lady in the Water, the awful The Happening and the disastrous Last Airbender. Suffice to say I was not expecting much from Shyamalan's latest effort After Earth, a science fiction thriller set 1,000 years into the future.
The story begins with the cliched back story of how Earth was basically destroyed by pollution and nuclear war, requiring all inhabitants to seek refuge on another planet called Nova Prime. The new planet looks a lot like southern Utah (some scenes were shot in Canyonlands), except for the presence of indigenous creatures called "Ursa." The Ursa are large, lizard-like monsters that are able to track humans by sensing pheromones triggered by fear, which is easily produced since the creatures have long, sharp claws and pretty much devour their unwelcome guests while impaling them on tree branches for effect.
Will Smith plays General Cypher Raige, a military commander on Nova Prime. He is also a “ranger,” one of a select few who are able to “ghost” around the Ursa by feeling no fear (thus becoming invisible to the otherwise blind monsters). All that emotional control makes Cypher a less-than affectionate father to his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who only wishes to be like his father.
After Kitai fails to get accepted as a ranger, Cypher invites him to tag along on a trip to another planet aboard a spaceship that looks like a huge manta ray. The ship carries a few rangers and pod containing an Ursa – and crashes on what used to be Earth after an encounter with a meteor shower. The only survivors of the crash are Cypher, Kitai and the Ursa.
Due to the apocalyptic events, Earth's only inhabitants are animals that have evolved into larger, more lethal killing machines. Even the atmosphere has evolved into something unbreathable for humans. Since Cypher's legs were broken in the crash, he sends his son on a trek to locate the tail section of the spacecraft, where he hopes to find a beacon that will call in a rescue.
During his quest, Kitai encounters baboons, large cats, poisonous leaches, giant birds of prey and the elements, as Cypher communicates and guides with his son via a video link.
When Kitai reaches the tail section, he must grapple with the Ursa and his own fear in order to survive.
After Earth is a sloppy, predictable effort that possesses many of the usual elements seen in other Shyamalan films (speaking with dead people, monsters, kids in peril). One of the staples of a Shyamalan movie is his trademark “big surprise” revealed toward the end of the story, but the big surprise in After Earth is that there is no “surprise.” In fact, you can pretty much see how the story will end 20 minutes into the film. It's not all Shyamalan's fault, either. After Earth's story was conceived by none other than Will Smith, whose wife Jada Pinkett Smith (and mother of Jaden) helped produce the movie, along with other family members. It's a story derivative of many other post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, and it would seem that the only thing that could make such a tale worse would be adding Shyamalan as director, just to make sure everyone is sufficiently bored by his plodding, deadpan style.
There are other plenty of other problems for After Earth. One is a production design that makes little sense, including a spaceship that appears to be made of paper, snot and balsa wood, despite having all sorts of cool technology. Another flaw is the Ursa (the Latin term for “bear”), which despite being blind is able to conceive the idea of setting a gory tableau of dead humans in order to scare more humans. The “fear” pheromone idea is more than a little flawed too, although I can see what the Smiths and Shyamalan were aiming for in their ham-fisted metaphor.
There are a few moments in After Earth that are not all bad, including some noteworthy special effects and the final, tense battle between Kitai and the Ursa. These few bright spots are obscured by the aforementioned lame story and some questionable acting performances from Smith and Son. The chemistry between Will and Jaden worked in 2006's Pursuit of Happyness, but seems forced in After Earth, begging the question as to whether it's wise to pursue any other “bring your kid to work” days for the Smith family.