"After Earth" Hollow But Occasionally Stirring

Perhaps in some alternate universe, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan rode the momentum of “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” to new heights and fulfilled his potential as the modern-day Rod Serling. The ingenuity of his work escalated with each film and his talents remained in high demand for well over a decade. Perhaps, in this alternate timeline, he finally got his long-awaited Best Director Oscar in 2008 and went on to James Cameron-like commercial success with his follow-up. Then, in 2013, he teamed with Will Smith to co-write and direct a remarkably mediocre sci-fi flick, immediately denounced as his career low point. Audiences bristled.

Meanwhile – back in reality – that same film, “After Earth,” is actually Shyamalan’s best film in a nearly decade. After a slew of disasters – “Lady In The Water” and “The Happening” among them – “After Earth” seems positively competent by comparison. It won’t impress more discerning audiences, but there’s a definite air of concern to the picture, as if Shyamalan knew that one more debacle could mark the end of his career in studio filmmaking. Strangely, the man known for his twists has just given us his biggest one yet – that his new film isn’t completely terrible.

Starring Will and Jaden Smith as father and son cosmonauts, “After Earth” depicts a post-human Earth where animals have “evolved to kill humans.” How does an animal evolve to kill humans without any humans to kill? That’s a terrific question that isn’t addressed by the film, but with a story as simple as “spaceship-crashes-and-two-spacemen-fight-for-survival,” you’ve come to the wrong place for intellectual stimulation.

The first act, taking place in some sort of space colony, is an absolute slog. Cypher (Will) and Kitai (Jaden) Raige are having some serious father-son issues, stemming from Kitai’s failure to become a Ranger like his father. Cypher is a decorated war hero who possesses the skill of ghosting, the ability to suppress fear in the presence of monsters that hunt humans by literally smelling their panic. Kitai is a whiny brat with a strange accent – or at least that’s how Jaden Smith plays him – so the disconnect between father and son isn’t surprising. Kitai is impossible to root for until we learn of a particularly damaging childhood experience, but by that point the film is Will’s to carry – even as he plays second fiddle to his son.

Cypher takes Kitai on a mission with him as a gesture of good faith, but soon they’ve crash-landed on Earth and the former is left entirely immobile. With two broken legs, Cypher has no choice but to send his son to find the tail of their ship, which happens to hold their only functioning beaconing device. Unfortunately, that part of the ship was also – rather inexplicably – housing a monster that they’d been transporting. Thankfully, Smith the elder doesn’t drop out of the picture, guiding his son along via video device.

With Kitai embarking on his journey, the film becomes far more palatable. The visuals are often impressive, Will gets a few substantive monologues, and Jaden doesn’t have to do much more than react to his surroundings. On a basic survival movie level, the second and third acts are at least passable, providing a nice blend of creatures, scenery, and the occasional suspenseful narrative beat. Shyamalan isn’t reinventing the wheel here, but very few elements – aside from the occasional line reading – stand out as particularly awful. Is it derivative? Incredibly. But rarely groan-inducing.

The film’s biggest ally is Shyamalan’s recent track record. I was almost relieved that “After Earth” didn’t make me want to run screaming from the theater. It’s not even particularly good, but for a mindless adventure film, you could do much worse at any given multiplex at any given time. I’d prefer to live in a world in which this was a speed bump in Shyamalan’s career, but – like it or not – it’s a relative highlight. It’s doubtful he’ll ever return to the highs of his early years, but “After Earth” proves that there’s still some inherent talent there, as corrupted as it might be. As for the Smiths – Jaden would do well to bottle some of his dad’s charisma for his next go-round. If he wants a career in film, he’ll need to do better than this.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: May 31, 2013
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriter: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images)