I've written before about the near-vertical trajectory (in a bad way) of M. Night Shyamalan's career over the past decade, from the idiocies of The Village to the did-that-really-happen awfulness of The Happening to the generic ineptitude of The Last Airbender. So I feel it's incumbent on me to note that with his latest offering, After Earth,the writer-director seems to have arrested his precipitous decline. This movie is no worse than his last two.
That said, I'm not sure it's any better, though apportioning blame in this instance is a bit complicated. Shyamalan's involvement notwithstanding, After Earth is a vanity project of the burgeoning multinational Will Smith Inc. The movie stars Smith and his 14-year-old son, Jaden. It's produced by Smith, his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, brother-in-law Caleeb Pinkett, and longtime friend and business partner James Lassiter. And it's based on a story written by Smith as a vehicle for his son, a story that he conceived while he and his brother-in-law were watching television together. Which is a long way of saying that it might be best to give Shyamalan a pass on this one.
The year (and original title of the project) is 1000 A.E.—that is, a thousand years after humankind has departed Earth for less environmentally despoiled pastures. General Cypher Raige (Smith pere) is the legendary head of the Ranger Corps, a military unit tasked with combating alien creatures called "ursas": H. R. Giger-y monstrosities that have no eyes but can (literally) smell fear. Exemplar of courage that he is, Cypher is entirely odor-free, and is thus able to wander among the ursas with impunity, stabbing them at will with his high-tech "cutlass." (Projectile weapons have evidently—and inconveniently—fallen out of favor, for reasons never made clear.)
But rangering doesn't come as easily to the general's son, Kitai (Smith fils), who has serious issues with fear-management. Being a teenager, he's also petulant, entitled, and insubordinate. So when Dad announces he's going on One Last Mission Before Retiring To Spend Time With His Family—you'd think Will Smith would have been around long enough to know what this portends for a black character in Hollywood—Mom (Sophie Okonedo) suggests he bring the boy along with him.
The routine operation quickly turns not-routine, of course, and the starship carrying Cypher and Kitai crash lands on the long-abandoned Earth, killing everyone else on board and breaking both of Cypher's legs. Worse, the ship has split into two halves, and the only functional distress beacon is on the other half, 100 kilometers away. So it falls to Kitai to make the journey alone, a task that will be difficult for a variety of reasons. First, as Cypher explains, since our departure all life on the planet "has evolved to kill humans." (Why life would evolve to hunt a prey that is no longer present is another of those questions the film declines to tackle.) Second, Cypher and Kitai's ship was carrying an ursa, to be used for ranger-training purposes, that has escaped and is also on the prowl. And a final two-fer: Earth's temperature drops to lethal extremes every night (lethal to human beings, that is, not to any of the abundant native flora and fauna) necessitating that Kitai reach a "hot spot" before each bedtime; and the atmosphere has thickened such that Kitai must ingest a precious "breathing liquid"—of which there is an inadequate supply—every 20 to 24 hours. (Given the abundance of "rules," it will perhaps come as no surprise that Shyamalan's co-writer on the screenplay, Gary Whitta, is a video-game journalist and consultant.)