Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Premise: Set in the distant future, a father and son (Will Smith and Jaden Smith) are stranded on a planet populated by aggressive life forms that have evolved to kill humans. The son must trek across the dangerous countryside to set off a distress beacon.
What Works: The filmography of M. Night Shyamalan varies wildly, with great films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable offset by some disastrous productions like The Happening and The Last Airbender. What has been consistent about Shyamalan’s work is its ambition. His movies attempt to dramatize abstract concepts like faith, heroism, and the relationship between man and nature. This ambition has been as much an asset as it has been a liability. When Shyamalan succeeded his movies were a combination of popcorn thrills with big ideas but in lesser cases the storytelling was encumbered by the focus on theme and the metaphors became silly. In After Earth, Shyamalan finds a much better balance between the ideas and the drama and it is his best directorial effort since The Village. After Earth is about the power of fear and that theme is nestled within a survival story involving a father and his son. The themes and the story lean on each other well with the premise allowing for the ideas to percolate naturally through the drama. After Earth is very much like a lot of recent science fiction and post-apocalyptic movies and television shows such as The Hunger Games, Oblivion, Avatar, and Battlestar Galactica and this picture is on par with similar movies. Its scope is limited in a way that keeps it lean and focused and the narrative unravels more briskly than a lot of the overlong science fiction and fantasy films released lately. After Earth also benefits from its organic look. Many of the creatures and set pieces are rendered through computer generated effects but the movie as a whole has a naturalistic style. Even the action scenes in which the son combats computer generated creatures or goes cliff diving generally maintain a credible look. In keeping with that naturalistic style is a surprisingly stoic performance by Will Smith. The actor is generally known for playing up his flamboyant “Fresh Prince” persona but here the elder Smith is much more like Robert Duvall in The Great Santini and it is a subtle but effective performance.
What Doesn’t: After Earth picks up once the survival story begins, but the start of the film is a slog. One of Shyamalan’s ongoing flaws has been clumsy handling of opening exposition. After Earth is front heavy with several minutes dedicated to explaining the story world but the explanation is unclear and it has very little bearing on what comes later, especially since the background of the story world is not all that different from many other science fiction movies like Oblivion and WALL-E. After the opening coda, the first third of the film is a military family drama but this portion of the movie is very sterile and uninvolving. That may be intentional since the movie transitions from a plastic environment to an organic setting but these early scenes do not play as well because everything about this portion of the movie is too stiff. Even after the film transitions, the performance by Jaden Smith is still problematic. The younger Smith plays the quiet scenes well but the big dramatic moments are frequently off key, with the actor coming across as shrill.
Bottom Line: After Earth is an average sci-fi adventure movie. If it had a more seasoned actor in the lead role it might have been a better film but in most respects it succeeds in being an entertaining father-son adventure.
Episode: #442 (June 9, 2013)