After Earth

after_earth_wallpaper_01_wide-580Many years from now, when genetic testing at birth will foretell what career a child will mature into, there will be a summer camp for boys and girls who have been determined to be future movie directors. Late at night, at this camp, the budding filmmakers will sit around a campfire. The counselor will shine a flashlight under his or her face and spookily intone, “Gather around, children … and listen to the terrifying cautionary tale of … M. Night Shyamalan.” Eeeeek!

Once pegged as “the new Spielberg,” Shyamalan had a series of hits as writer-director: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and yes, even the much-maligned The Village made respectable bank. For a while, Shyamalan, who was legitimately talented and had an effortless command of dread-ridden mood, strutted around as if his flatulence were lavender aromatherapy. Then, oh then, came the fall: Lady in the Water (which I actually liked) followed in a diminuendo of fecklessness by The Happening and The Last Airbender.

Today — not that you’d know it by the ads — Shyamalan is back with After Earth, which proves, if nothing else, that he still values apprehensive quietude to build tension. The movie is not poorly directed. Unfortunately it has been constructed by its co-producer, Will Smith, and its star, also Will Smith, as a showcase for and passing of the sci-fi-action baton to one Jaden Smith, son of the co-producer and star. You wouldn’t really know that from the ads, either, but After Earth is basically Jaden’s Big-Ass Jungle Adventure (Occasionally Featuring a Mostly Seated Will Smith).

It’s a thousand years in the future. Earth has long been uninhabitable, so everyone has packed up and left. Their new planet, Nova Prime, is infested with ugly monsters known as Ursas, who can sense fear. General Cypher Raige (Will) has no fear, so they can’t sense him and he can kill them. Cypher’s son Kitai (Jaden) is a “ranger” in training. They go off together on a mission, but their spaceship is trashed by asteroids and they have to make an unscheduled landing on … Earth. Cypher’s legs are broken in the crash; he sends Kitai, the only other survivor, out to find the tail of the ship, which contains the beacon they need to send for help. Kitai must contend not only with the wildlife of Earth, all of which has evolved to be extremely dangerous, but with a newly hatched Ursa that had occupied an egg in the cargo hold.

Shyamalan, who along with Gary Whitta is credited with the screenplay (Will gets story credit), establishes the uneasy relationship between father and son. Dad shows no fear and hardly any other emotion; robbed of his usual facile charm, Will has little to fall back on but a rather stilted delivery that suggests that humans in the year 2113 will talk like Gina Carano in Furious 6. (Somehow, people are still using phrases like “good to go” in the far future.) Since Will is sidelined, the movie rests unsteadily on Jaden’s narrow shoulders, and he communicates a certain urgency, though not much else. The many scenes of peril are smoothly staged, with a respect for the savage alienness of the evolved life forms, though I could’ve done without the bit where Jaden tries to save some baby condors from tigers and the mama condor drags him to shelter. That adds an unwelcome anthropomorphic softness to the rest of the proceedings: Battle not with monsters, and they’ll totally save your life later, brah.

After Earth has taken a punch or two for allegedly being a Trojan horse for Scientology, but I didn’t sniff any of that. Cypher Raige’s mantra is “Danger is real; fear is a choice,” and he goes on to clarify that fear is a response to something that hasn’t happened yet and may not happen. “Take a knee,” he commands his son, and ground yourself in the present. His and his son’s real problem, though, is regret over a tragedy in the past, and they need to learn that the past is dead. If the movie stumps for any belief system, it’s Zen Buddhism. As for the overall film, it’s really an intimate two-person story, with Kitai’s mother and sister as mostly voiceless avatars of inspiration. Realists will be relieved that humans don’t find a way to return to Earth for good and co-exist with the animals; the planet remains wild and toxic, and so the film shakes out as a bitter cautionary tale. Speaking of which, that campfire story told to frightened young directors may not have such a bad ending; the movie may be flopping, but that’s not Shyamalan’s fault — he did his best with what he was given. He deserves another shot, and a stronger script.

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