In both cases, the key to survival comes in the person of Will Smith. In real life, he sprung Shyamalan from movie jail to co-write and direct a film based on a story by Smith, which pairs the global megastar with his son Jaden. In the film, Smith plays a stern, remote but loving parent to a young son (Jaden), who struggles to live up to his father's daunting standards. Within After Earth lies an unusual, at times compelling futuristic action story, but it's encumbered by considerable celebrity baggage.
After Earth begins with an info-dump of future exposition. About a thousand years from now, mankind has abandoned the polluted, poisoned Earth in favor of a new colony, where they've been contending with genetically modified marauders called 'Ursas' that literally smell human fear. As the improbably-named Cypher Raige, the elder Smith has the status of living legend in the colony and casts a long shadow over his son Kitai, a highly trained cadet who tends to freeze up in the field. For some father-son quality time, Cypher brings Kitai on a space mission, but their ship runs afoul of a largely incomprehensible interstellar disaster (that features an eerie sound design of space debris pinging the hull).
The ship crashes on the nearest available planet, which happens to be Earth. The script doesn't explain how Earth transformed in the ensuing centuries, but the oxygen content has changed, temperatures fluctuate wildly and the native animals have become larger, more virulent and more obviously CGI creations. No one has survived the wreck but Kitai and Cypher, and the latter broke both his legs. The key to their rescue lies in the ship's tail section, which landed 100 kilometers away. To make matters worse, a captive Ursa may be on the loose.
After Earth suffers from some ill-conceived decisions, like having the humans speak English in an accent that ranges from Cockney to Caribbean, but no one seems able to sustain. Once Kitai embarks on his mission, however, the film becomes a passable adventure story, with appealingly straightforward goals, obstacles and variables. Cypher can speak to and monitor his son's vitals from the space ship, but both characters keep secrets from the other so they don't lose hope. Shyamalan's direction doesn't evoke the old comparisons to Hitchcock or Spielberg, but at least builds enough suspense and momentum to keep audiences invested in seeing the outcome.
Shyamalan dispenses with his former trademark twists, but still gets in his own way, and here Kitai experiences unnecessary flashbacks to a haunting memory. You'd think the stakes were already high enough: not only does Kitai have to save their lives on a savage planet, not only does he have to prove himself to his Dad, not only is there a monster in the mix - he apparently has to find a catharsis for some lingering guilt. If you liked the "Swing away" scene from Shyamalan's Signs, you'll appreciate After Earth's redemption arc.
With long dialogue-free scenes of man vs. nature, After Earth follows a tradition that ranges from Jack London novels to Life of Pi. Jaden Smith, however, lacks the child-actor chops of a Haley Joel Osment or a Quvenzhané Wallis, and can't really hold the screen. His father works to compensate, however, by doing most of the talking, employing a similar kind of quiet intensity that he brought to I Am Legend.
Audiences can speculate how much After Earth mirrors the Smiths real relationship. Does Cypher's lesson about emotional control - "Danger is real. Fear is a choice" - underpin the elder Smith's ambitions that drove him to conquer pop music and become a global film superstar? Who can say? However, if either Smith had qualms about Jaden carrying the movie, they should have listened to them, since his casting makes an intriguing sci-fi action flick feel a little too much like "Take Your Kid To Work Day."
After Earth. 3 stars. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Stars Jaden Smith, Will Smith. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., May 31. At area theaters.
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