Aside from being an on-screen reunion for father and son Will and Jaden Smith (the pair last shared the screen in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness), After Earth is also a true return to dramatic form for director M. Night Shyamalan. The oft-criticized filmmaker’s undeniable talents for blending sophisticated, cerebral, character-driven storytelling with chilling suspense are on full display in a story dressed in elaborate sci-fi trappings, but at its heart a simple tale of overcoming fear and distrust in order to survive.
A thousand years after humanity was forced to abandon Earth due to a series of ecological disasters, humans have carved out a new existence on a light-years distant world called Nova Prime. Unfortunately, that world was already claimed by another race, and thus the remnants of humanity found themselves at war. During that conflict, the enemy engineered monsters called “Ursas” — seemingly unstoppable killing machines that, while technically blind, hunted their prey by tracking pheromones exuded by humans experiencing fear.
Humanity’s protectors, the Rangers, are led by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a hero of the wars against the Ursa because of his ability to “ghost”, or make himself invisible to the Ursas by utterly rendering himself without fear. Those who can “ghost” are extremely rare, but Raige’s teenaged son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), wants to be counted among that elite group. There’s just one problem: despite his intelligence and natural aptitudes, his courage and resolve collapse in the field, leading him to make brash, thoughtless decisions. At the end of his training, Kitai is declared unfit for Ranger status and sent just in time to face his legendary father, home from his final combat assignment and seemingly ready for retirement.
In an effort to reconnect with KItai, the General agrees to take the young man with him on an assignment to oversee off-world training, but the ship carrying them and a captive Ursa is heavily damaged by an asteroid storm and forced to crash land on a planet quarantined because every life form on it had evolved over centuries to kill the human species. It’s only after they’ve survived the crash and only after they realize that a journey across that lethal world must be undertaken in order for them to be rescued that the General reveals to Kitai where they really are: the world of humanity’s birth, Earth.
The film’s post-apocalyptic setting may remind viewers of Oblivion, the recent Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner that also was set on an Earth devoid of human life, but there really are very few similarities beyond that particular plot element. Shyamalan, who co-wrote the script with scribe Greg Witta from a story written by Will Smith, chooses to set his tale on an Earth where signs of humanity’s past no longer exist. It’s a lush, overgrown world teeming with life and threats to life — everything from the air and climate to the trees and the wildlife can and will kill, and thus the setting becomes just as much an antagonist in the film as any particular creature or enemy. The younger of the two Smiths faces off against that antagonist more or less on his own for long stretches of the film, and thus Kitai’s inner struggle to overcome his fears becomes personified in his struggle simply to survive all that the very savage Mother Nature of this Earth has to throw at him. Both literally and figuratively, the boy must overcome his fear if both he and his father are to survive.
Simplistic as it may sound, it all works because Shyamalan understands that what scares modern, savvy movie audiences most is not necessarily the danger they can see, but rather the danger that’s lurking just off-camera and thus is left to their imaginations. With the possible exception of the final confrontation, which admittedly is pretty predictable because they set it up early in the film, you never really know from where the next danger is going to present itself, and thanks to a charismatic and sympathetic performance from Jaden Smith, you share in Kitai’s apprehension and dread as he evades or outright flees from predators chasing him through the trees, over colossal waterfalls, and even through the air. That dread, that fear of what the threats that you can’t see but know are there lying in wait, will more than likely have you holding your breath and white-knuckle gripping your seat.
No doubt there will be some criticism of the CGI utilized to bring to life many of the natural predators that appear in the film, which in almost every case are evolved versions of recognizable critters in our world today. It’s certainly fair to point it out simply because there is so much of it in After Earth, and not all of it stands up to scrutiny, particularly because we’ve seen fantastical creatures brought to life through CGI in so many other films of late, and we’ve seen it done extremely well. So are they the best, scariest CGI beasties you’ve ever seen in 2D or IMAX? Probably not. Are they the worst in recent memory? Certainly not. But the sheer amount of it present on screen throughout much of the film makes it worth consideration, especially if you’re put off by lots of computer-generated fakery in your cinema. Consider yourself advised.
And what of Dad? What of Will Smith, once the undisputed champion of the summer blockbuster? The elder Smith is likeable and larger than life, as always, but he plays General Raige with a sternness that he rarely takes on, and it’s not a perfect fit. Thankfully, the script also graces him with a large portion of the film’s more tender and humorous moments through a subplot involving Kitai’s sister, Senshi (Zoë Isabella Kravitz), and that allows the talented comic actor that Smith has been for decades shine through the General’s disciplined demeanor. But though he shares top billing with Jaden on the posters and in the marketing, make no mistake going in: Daddy Smith is a supporting player here. After Earth is Jaden’s film to carry, and with a little help from Shyamalan’s talents and some truly awe-inspiring locations and scary production design, carry it successfully he does.
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Isabella Kravitz. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.