Review: After Earth (2013)

M. Night Shyamalan has had a rough couple of years, and unfortunately After Earth is not a complete return to form for the disgraced auteur. After Earth is certainly his best movie in years, perhaps even a decade. However, Shyamalan’s recent track record includes major duds like Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, and the dreadful The Happening, so it’s not that hard to top these films.

From a screenplay by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan based off a story by Will Smith, After Earth is a minimalistic adventure story about a father and son. It’s 1000 years in the future, humanity lives on the distant Nova Prime, and Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) crash land on the abandoned Earth. However, Earth has evolved to be lethal to humans. Since Cypher is injured, his son has to make the trek across the lethal landscape to the tail section of the spaceship in order to make the transmission necessary to save their lives.

For such potentially emotional material focusing on the bond between father and son, this is a surprisingly unmoving film. When it reaches for its few moments of emotional honesty, and especially during its unearned climax, it falters, which is unfortunate because the film’s not a disaster. There is an admirable restraint to the material. The story is fairly unembellished and shares the stripped down quality of certain other wilderness films like The Hunter and The Grey.  Simply put, it isn’t another sci-fi fantasy trying to ape Avatar.

There are points of interest interspersed throughout the film. For one thing, Shyamalan still knows how to direct an individual scene. Learnt from Hitchcock, his framing always hints at the dangers lurking outside the frame. In an early scene, Kitai approaches an immobilized ursa, a monster than can smell human fear, and Shyamalan demonstrates his uncanny ability to build suspense and unleash a thrill at the right moment. There are touches of the thrill-master of Signs here.

And yet the film has some fatal issues. Although I very much enjoyed Jaden Smith’s updated version of The Karate Kid (which totally should have been called The Kung Fu Kid), it’s clear that Jaden is not yet a bona fide leading man. In The Karate Kid he was leaning heavily on Jackie Chan’s charisma, and here he desperately needs his dad’s help to lift the film’s energy. Unfortunately, the elder Smith is playing such an emotionless cipher, he doesn’t lend the film any much-needed human energy.

For better and worse, this isn’t neutered Shyamalan. Anyone who thinks this film lacks Shyamalan’s signature touches needs to look closer. Perhaps his authorial stamp is a little diluted by the presence of Smiths, but there’s so much of After Earth that screams Shyamalan. The deft camerawork that hints at the dangers lurking off screen; the obsession with fear as the great paralyzer; the insistence that family can overcome all dangers — all Shyamalan signatures.

It’s encouraging to see that Shyamalan’s talent is not entirely gone, even if he hasn’t regained the heights of Signs or Unbreakable. Still, After Earth is merely a fine movie. It holds a certain appeal to the choice demographic (fathers and sons), but the storytelling is lacking. The technical craft is dazzling. The plot is serviceable. But the story fails. However much Shyamalan and the Smiths try, we don’t care whether the heroes live or die, which is a fatal problem indeed.

5 out of 10

After Earth (2013, USA)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan; written by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan based off a story by Will Smith; starring Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Kravitz, Sophie Okonedo, and Glenn Morshower.