M. Night Shyamalan: a dude who went from being crowned "The Next Spielberg" on the cover of Newsweek (circa Signs) to a guy who had his name laughed off the screen (circa The Last Airbender). Considering his last few f-ups, it's not surprising that After Earth—which he directed and co-wrote—doesn't feel at all like a Shyamalan movie. Aside from a few moments featuring the haunting restraint and jarring intensity that mark his earlier, better work, Shyamalan's style is as absent from After Earth as his name has been from the film's advertising materials. (That hasn't stopped Shyamalan—never the humblest of auteurs—from comparing his film to works by Malick and Spielberg.) On the upside, After Earth isn't nearly as terrible as Shyamalan's more recent movies; on the downside, it's remarkably, thoroughly shrug-worthy.
Several millennia in the future, humans have abandoned Earth and now live in the stars, where Kitai (Jaden Smith) is the son of humanity's numero uno soldier, Gen. Cypher Raige (Will Smith). (If you think naming a character "Cypher Raige" is dumb, well, yes. Also, that's the least of your worries when your movie is based on a story Will Smith came up with to showcase his kid.) Wanting to bond with his son, Cypher takes Kitai along on a mission—but what was supposed to be a trip for just the two of them hits code red when they're caught in the middle of an asteroid field. Both of their lives get flipped, turned upside down; with a room-shaking boom, the spaceship crashes somewhere on Earth that's even wilder than the Wild West. If you expect the Raiges to just kick it and declare there ain't no place like home, you're wrong: On this far-future Earth, temperatures vacillate wildly—there is winter and summer in the same day—and it's crammed with angry CG animals. It's up to Kitai to rescue them, and, in the process, turn from a whiny wuss into a hero who's so amped he thinks he can beat Mike Tyson.
Oh! There is also an alien monster who was on their ship and is hunting Kitai—so just in case Earth's evolved, super-angry baboons and evolved, super-angry leeches aren't enough, there's also the threat of extraterrestrial violence. Cypher calls this monster an "ursa," even though it's clearly a "metaphor"; Kitai's big problem is being afraid, and the ursa, while blind, can smell fear.
It's no The Tree of Life or Jurassic Park, but there's stuff to like here, at least in theory: After Earth is a big summer movie that's mostly focused on two people talking (they have walkie-talkies in the future!), and like Tom Cruise's Oblivion, it is as interested in nature as it is in jazzy gadgets and spaceships. (That's what happens, I guess, when we all have Star Trek communicators in our pockets—things like trees and waterfalls start to look as novel and alien as holograms used to.) After Earth tries to find some drama in the fact that Cypher just doesn't understand his son, but it's hogtied by bland execution, cut-and-paste characters (both Smiths are upstaged by a CG bird), and Jaden, who inherited his dad's ears, but not his charisma. The whole thing feels like a familiar groove, but slightly transformed—just a bit of a break from the norm. SW
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan