Midweek movie-review: After Earth

Once upon a time, writer-director M Night Shyamalan was a critical darling. His 1999 feature, The Sixth Sense was a smash sleeper hit, breaking records for its time spent atop the US box office and garnering multiple Oscar nominations. Over time though, Shyamalan’s star faded with reviewers and audiences alike. Over time, his later filmic efforts, like Lady in the Water and The Happening, produced unintentional laughs, not gasps of delight and surprise. The filmmaker could still generate moments of tension, but the soul seemed to have seeped out of his work. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his going-through-the-motions adaptation of animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Still, even with a reputation in tatters, it’s unfair to dismiss every single thing a movie maker does by default. It’s easy to do that but each effort still deserves to be judged on its own merits. And while there is a lot wrong and plain dumb about Shyamalan’s new sci-fi survival thriller, After Earth, it’s still easily his best film in years – demonstrating moments of real emotional charge.

After Earth is set a thousand years after humanity’s home world has been abandoned. In that time Mankind has fought an alien threat called the Ursa – brutal, blind monsters guided by the scent of fear. Instead of staging ambushes to exploit this obvious weaknesses, and whipping out the heavy artillery, humanity has instead turned to a blade-wielding military force known as the Rangers.

The Rangers’ greatest hero is stony General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), the first solider to learn how to “ghost” – i.e. suppress his fear to the point of becoming invisible to the Ursa. Cypher’s pubescent son Kitai (Will’s real-life son Jaden) has huge shoes to fill as a result, but despite being a model Ranger cadet physically and academically, he’s paralysed by fear in the field. It’s a shortcoming Kitai is forced to overcome when a mission with his emotionally aloof father sees them crash-land on Earth – which has become a feral forest world full of threats to humans. With Cypher gravely injured, it’s up to Kitai to cross 100km on foot to reach the rescue beacon.

As already said, After Earth is a mixed bag. There are plenty of plot holes, and like most of Shyamalan’s work, the film is very stilted and stiff emotionally. Most of the small supporting cast look like they want to laugh, and it’s a strange choice to take an actor like Will Smith – who is known for his wisecracking, relaxed charm – and strip him of his greatest strength. It’s appropriate for the character, but one gets the sense that the film would have been more engaging had Cypher been allowed to thaw emotionally. For the record, Smith Sr. wrote the story on which After Earth is based, and produced the film.

Still, despite its extreme simplicity, obviousness and reliance on contrivance to advance the plot, After Earth remains engaging. It’s never boring, with Shymalan demonstrating his substantial skills when it comes to generating tension. He hasn’t lost it. At least two chase sequences involving Kitai and the evolved inhabitants of Earth will set your heart racing. And there’s an especially intense scene involving animal poison and an anti-toxin.

Obviously it falls to Jaden Smith to pretty much carry the film – his first movie role since playing the title character in the Karate Kid remake. Again, there’s no Smith cockiness in After Earth. Jaden portrays Kitai as being perpetually on the brink of tears. With good reason as it turns out. This may irritate some audience members but personally it helped win me over, and become invested in Kitai’s success.

Featuring a more “organic” sci-fi aesthetic, and some very cool suits and weaponry, After Earth is certainly interesting and pretty to look at. It could have been less po-faced, but for 100 minutes of entertainment that actually produces sparks of exhilaration alongside flashes of eye-rolling cheesiness, this one is worth your time. So ignore the haters.

3 stars out of 5.


Heinrich said…
Although I'm inclined to agree with your view that this film is somewhat exciting and pretty to look at. The obvious conclusion and the terribly wooden acting by Jaden Smith ruined this film for me completely. I found myself groaning in scenes that should have had some tension or emotion in them because the younger Smith just tries too hard. His emotions are forced and I'm pretty sure that his role would have been better served with another actor in the saddle. With the recent amazing quality of si-fi movies spewing forth from the Hollywood volcano this movie becomes nothing short of abysmal in my opinion.

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