If Hollywood’s recent products are any indication, the future of the human race is grim. In recent months, we’ve flown around an abandoned earth with Tom Cruise in “Oblivion,” and watched the human population enslaved by glowing parasitic caterpillars in “The Host.” Coming up next month, “World War Z” will give us the newest angle on the zombie apocalypse.
Amid all this comes “After Earth,” director M. Night Shyamalan’s own take on our dystopian destiny, and a well-intentioned if obvious attempt to address the nature of our fears.
We address these fears through the eyes of Kitai (Jaden Smith), who crash-lands on Earth with his father Cypher (Will Smith, Jaden’s real-life father) more than 1,000 years after mankind’s follies left its home planet uninhabitable. Cypher is a legendary general and a strict disciplinarian to his field-shy son. But the crash leaves Cypher with two broken legs, so to save their lives, Kitai is sent to locate the lost beacon that can summon their rescue. Along the way, he has to confront the worst of what the planet has to offer, as well as a nasty alien he and Cypher had been carrying in transit.
The pacing is a bit sluggish, but the acting is fine, and the special effects are pretty good. But regardless of what happens on the screen, the presence of maligned director Shyamalan will grab the attention of all but the most casual fans, as his gradual fall from grace in the years since “The Sixth Sense” has practically left him a punch line in pop culture circles. For longtime fans who fondly remember his earlier work, “After Earth” isn’t quite a return to form, but it might stop the bleeding a bit.
It’s also interesting to note the overwhelming presence of Team Smith, which not only handles the acting for the film, but also the story (Will Smith) and the producing (Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith). “After Earth” also marks the first on-screen team-up for the father-son pair since “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which featured a lot more emotional weight and a lot less CGI.
“After Earth” dangles a number of high-minded concepts at the audience, from the subtle environmental chides that seem almost obligatory in modern science fiction to the film’s primary message about facing and overcoming fear. But sadly, none of these concepts are explored enough to do them justice, and what’s left is a film with some nice ideas but little follow-through, and even less subtlety (for example, the escaped alien can literally smell fear, making for a pretty transparent metaphor). Shyamalan has indicated that he didn’t want to use one of his signature twists in the film, which is too bad. “After Earth” could use a few surprises. With all the other sci-fi options at multiplexes right now, this Will Smith vehicle will probably get lost in the shuffle.
“After Earth” comes in with an appropriate PG-13 rating. Sexual content and profanity are practically non-existent, but between the sci-fi scares and some of the accompanying gore, parents would probably be best advised to leave the little ones at home.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.