Based on an idea from one of the film’s stars, the latest from director M. Night Shyamalan stars Will Smith and Jaden Smith as an estranged father and son in the far future who crash-land on a post-apocalyptic version of an abandoned Earth and must work together to survive. Part coming of age story, part father/son dynamic, part horror film, and part shaky science fiction, After Earth proves to be the most straightforward movie of Shyamalan’s career. Instead of twists or late reveals After Earth relies on drama, action, and ramped-up tension to play out a predictable story.
After racing through setting up this version of the future, the destruction of Earth, the settlement across the galaxy, and humanity’s battle with generic movie monster aliens known as Ursas (creatures who can smell and track fear of their prey across great distances), our story begins in earnest with General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) arriving home from his latest assignment to his talented but skittish son Katai (Jaden Smith) who on that very day has been denied advancement in the Ranger Corps for his inability to show calm in the face of danger.
In part trying to bond with his son, and in part to placate his wife (Sophie Okonedo), Kitai decides to take his son on a routine space run transporting troops and a captured Ursa to another settlement light-years away. If you’ve seen enough action and sci-fi movies, phrases like “routine” and “captured alien creature” should send up immediate red flags. And, as you’d expect, it doesn’t take too long before things go horrendously wrong and the ship is forced to attempt a landing on the only habitable planet within range – Earth.
The only survivors of the crash, the injured Kitai is forced to rely on his son cover 100 kilometers of the dangerous wilderness and recover the beacon in the other half of the spaceship’s wreckage. Through various sci-fi gadgets Kitai is able to view and guide his son on his journey through the world which turns out to be less dangerous (with the exception of the threat the ship brought with them) than we’re initially led to believe. Katai does battle monkeys and large feral cats in separate sequences, but most of his journey is rather uneventful.
Realizing very early on that the strength of Gary Whitta‘s screenplay is in the tension-filled moments of the near-constant struggle to survive, and the dynamic of the real-life father and son, Shyamalan does his best to downplay the various other pieces of the story while using a variety of ticking clock scenarios (Kitai’s injury and failing health, the limited supply of “breathing fluid” Katai has at his disposal, and the planet’s bizarre temperature swings which also hamper his movement) in an attempt to keep the tension taut even when a single of the concept’s (the severe injury of Katai’s father) would be enough to force the young man quicken his pace on a mission he’s ill-prepared for. The temperature fluctuations are the most puzzling of the obstacles thrown in his way as Katai is forced to seek shelter when a nightly Ice Age takes over the wilderness (that somehow doesn’t kill any animals or vegetation in its path, or force any animals into the same warm zones that he uses to surive).
The Ursa is a looming threat to Katai, and it’s increasingly unclear how intelligent the alien actually is, but the real point of the story isn’t the inevitable confrontation with the creature but the coming of age story in the jungle where the boy becomes a man, puts his past behind him, and becomes a warrior who may stand a chance when finally confronted with what is essentially the real-life boogeyman from his childhood. Corny? You bet. At times the emotional range of the film varies from completely wooden to forcefully emotional, but with his use of pace and the constant fear the young man carries around with him, Shyamalan is able to keep the story moving forward without getting bogged down in unnecessary melodrama.
Could the setting and monster be a little better thought out? You bet. Having Will Smith play so drastically against type as an emotionally cut-off character certainly doesn’t do the movie any favors, either. Despite these issues and various inconsistencies (such as Katai missing and suddenly regaining his Swiss Army Staff, or other survival items, from scene to scene) the film manages, much like its young protagonist, to continue its journey without stumbling too egregiously. After Earth certainly isn’t a must-see, but compared to the list of Shyamalan’s recent disappointments it turns out to be a pleasant surprise.