There is one thing that kept me away from After Earth for so long, and the film’s marketing team was savvy enough to know that I might not be alone in that regard. The truth was kept kind of hush-hush, a dirty secret that could cost the movie millions. I’m telling all, though; I’m ready to spill the beans. What they don’t want you to know is this: the movie was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Yes, that M. Night Shyamalan, the one whose recent string of failures had made him a joke. But it’s a little bit unfair because this movie is an original Will Smith joint. Smith came up with the story, fleshed out the screenplay, co-stars, and–if IMDb Trivia can be believed–directed the acting of his son Jaden. In fact, my sources tell me that Smith sought out Shyamalan to come to the project, leading many to refer to the director as a gun-for-hire. His contribution, in the eyes of most, was mostly to make things look good.
Maybe it’s this reduced role for Shyamalan, but After Earth is the best thing his name has been attached to in years. It’s true that the movie starts off with shaky footing, with Kitai (Jaden Smith) in voice-over describing the future world we’re in. It’s a world where humans have traveled across the stars to begin life on a new planet, but unfortunately one where huge bug-monsters hunt and kill people by smelling the pheromones produced by their fear. Kitai’s father Cypher Rage (Will Smith) is a military legend because he was able to master a technique known as “ghosting”, the complete absence of fear making him literally invisible to their insectoid enemies. After all that exposition is delivered, there’s also an unmoving scene at home where Cypher acts brusquely to his son, who runs out in a huff. Consequently, Cypher (at the behest of his wife) invites his son along on a delivery mission, which sets up the events to follow. All of this feels mighty obligatory, and the limited acting ability of Jaden Smith unfortunately doesn’t help much.
Ah, but it’s this trip where things become interesting. I was struck by how well-developed the science fiction of the story was. I suppose it’s no great struggle for actors to speak futuristic gibberish in a serious manner, but when Cypyer enters the cabin to discuss the possibility of danger, I really got the sense that the character was considering his options and weighing the risks in his mind before issuing orders about jumping through wormholes or what-have-you. The rest of the ship was wonderfully antiseptic, a fact that I found remarkable. There’s no doubt a great temptation to make the future look futuristic, and in some ways the future of After Earth meets those expectations. For instance, once they’ve crash-landed on Earth, Kitai runs through the forest wearing an arm-band communicator that allows his father–forced to stay in the wreckage with two broken legs–to see and hear everything around the boy with a full 360 degree range of vision. Yet I was struck by the simplicity of this vessel, with simple seats installed along the wall with across-the-chest restraints for passengers, the walls a blank white metal. It’s a ship that’s functional and no doubt cheaply produced: clearly no Enterprise, and therefore not adorned like one. I found that attention to detail, or rather the attention to lack of detail, extraordinary.
I was similarly impressed by the way that Earth was treated, after the fateful crash-landing that forces Kitai to travel some 60 miles by foot to retrieve a distress beacon. Humans left the planet because their carelessness had made it hostile to their survival, and there’s never any question in After Earth that Earth is uninhabitable. Yes, there are trees and waterfalls and herds of buffalo, but there’s never any suggestion that the planet is fit for re-colonization. As far as the movie is concerned, the only relevant thought is how to get off this rock. I’ve seen some chafe at this portrayal of the planet, suggesting that failing to explore these easy themes is a mistake. If you’re not going to address these obvious issues, why even set the movie on this planet? Smith and Shyamalan, the thinking goes, might as well have given the planet some new name and populated it with strange alien creatures rather than recognizable animals. I disagree. Setting the movie on Earth (albeit an Earth with some foreign characteristics, like freezing over completely at night) and refusing to comment on it makes for a much more compelling picture for the exact same reasons I found the scenes in the ship intriguing: because it underscores the reality of the movie’s universe. Investigating heady ideas about mankind’s role in the fate of the Earth is interesting and all… for a movie. This is about the characters’ survival only. If the movie took place on some planet with blue trees, it would be easy to see the story as just “they’re stranded and need to escape”; by putting the characters on an Earth they never recognize as a “home”, it emphasizes their disconnect from it.
There’s still some unfortunate moments of attempted human resonance, as when Kitai gives a sobbing speech where he confronts his father on their shared guilt over a death in the family. We don’t see the “camera” that the character is looking at when he’s speaking directly to his father, so it’s just Jaden Smith looking directly at us while trying to deliver this heartfelt dialogue and failing to sell it. It’s uncomfortable. In fact, any time the movie pushes hard on the relationship between characters is when it’s at its weakest. It’s much better when it limits itself to their inner struggles; the elder Smith, in my opinion, does a wonderful job balancing his stoic “fearlessness” with the nagging worries about his son’s safety. You can see it in his eyes, and you can hear it in the way he pleads with Kitai after an encounter with a paralyzing agent, “You have to get up.” I find this so much more enjoyable than some big declaration of their love for one another. It’s shown effectively in Cypher’s desperation: it’s clear he’s concerned about his son’s safety and not his own. It’s shown in the way that Kitai calls out for his father, yet incorporates the lessons learned from the older man to overcome obstacles on his own.
I think where After Earth falters is in the beginning and the end, where it’s trying to set everything up and when it tries to stick the landing. It just doesn’t do a good job at either of these things, becoming the mess we expected from Shyamalan. But I found this weakness overshadowed by the confident middle section. The bulk of After Earth is serious, appropriately understated, and makes great use of its lush, treacherous environment. I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but it has a steady vision through the bulk of the picture that doesn’t really get derailed until the final moments. Since I entered with fairly low expectations due to Shyamalan’s involvement, this made for a pleasant surprise.