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.)
So Kitai sets out on his quest, with his dad literally looking over his shoulder via the cameras and sensors embedded in his suit. When Kitai's mom had recommended this particular parental-bonding excursion, she told her husband, "He doesn't need a commanding officer. He needs a father." But as Cypher counsels his son remotely, it's hard to shake the sense that the role he is truly embracing is that of acting coach. "Root yourself in this present moment now," he tells the boy. "Recognize your power. This will be your creation." And... scene!
There are any number of other quibbles one might make regarding After Earth, from its second-rate CGI to its generic score to its empty references to Moby Dick. The let-us-walk-you-through-this expository dialogue will be familiar to anyone who saw The Last Airbender—guess what it bodes when Cypher warns "I want to reiterate that your navi-band is our sole means of communication"—as will be the insistently yet unidentifiably British Empire accents (Kiwi? Indian?) adopted by most of the cast in what seems like an ill-advised effort to class up the production.
These manifold shortcomings might recede in importance if After Earth had a compelling protagonist at its center. But it doesn't. The younger Smith is persuasive enough—at times perhaps a bit too persuasive—in his portrayal of an awkward, tentative adolescent, but he is entirely lacking in the big-screen charisma that made his father one of Hollywood's major stars.
Indeed, I'm not sure I've ever seen a film in which the text and subtext—both concerning an effortlessly gifted father who presses his less-talented son to follow in his footsteps—were so completely in alignment. Alas, only in one of the two does the story end happily.