Every inch an M. Night Shyamalan film, After Earth deals with many of the director’s usual thematic concerns — minus the supposedly revelatory twist ending. There’s the driving, underlying nature of guilt that was at the bottom of Signs (2002), and the idea of nature getting revenge on a negligent humanity that was the foundation of The Happening (2008). And like both these films — and every movie Shyamalan’s made except for Unbreakable (2000) and maybe Lady in the Water (2006) — After Earth is pretty lousy.
This is why you’ve barely seen Shyamalan’s name attached to the film, as After Earth has instead been advertised as your standard Will Smith summer sci-fi blockbuster. What’s odd and more than a little fascinating about the movie is that it’s hardly the crowd-pleasing actioner it purports to be. Instead, this is an occasionally grim, surprisingly serious and unfortunately shallow attempt at science fiction grandiosity being presented as a CGI-heavy popcorn flick — with Shyamalan scratching and clawing for greatness. That he falls short isn’t very surprising when you take into account a couple of things — the first being a paper-thin premise with little room for deviation, let alone surprises. After Earth takes place well into the future, where Earth has become uninhabitable, and humans live far away on a planet unfortunately infested with giant, murderous nasties who are bred to detect fear. The story revolves around the improbably named, hard-nosed military man Cypher Raige (Will Smith), and his fearful, angsty son Kitai (Smith’s son Jaden), who’ve crashed on an inhospitable Earth. With Cypher injured, Kitai must trek through various dangers — including one of the aforementioned alien beasties — in order to save himself and his father. Due to the inevitability of the plot, it’s pretty obvious how all this will dovetail, and it makes the film fairly dull entertainment. A lot has been made about Smith’s Scientology leanings and how they creep into the film, but if this exists, it’s pretty vague, and copies ideas similar to many other sci-fi action movies.
The second big problem is the performances, which too often feel hoary and overdone. Primarily we have the Smiths — father and son. The former takes all this too seriously, while the latter has the dramatic range of your run-of-the-mill soap opera star. Neither is helped by the strange — and occasionally incomprehensible — accents (a silly mix of Creole and British) their characters are forced to affect. Shyamalan takes great care in creating the world of the film. The society the Raiges’ live in and the technology they wield are unusual, but there’s a wrong-headedness to many of the film’s other fancies. The creatures are generic and forgettable, while some notions — like the idea that the earth freezes over every night, yet somehow stays lush and vibrant — simply make no sense. But there are occasional flashes of something deeper. The death of Kitai’s sister (Zoë Kravitz) — and the family’s guilt surrounding it — is handled in surprisingly bleak terms, and there’s a shocking amount of heart put into a giant CGI eagle. This seriousness, coupled with Shyamalan’s ambitions, never jive with the silliness of After Earth’s uninspired sci-fi trappings, making the film interesting on a thematic level, but little more than a curio at best. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher