M. Night Shyamalan has directed movies that are surprising, hokey, suspenseful, sentimental, clever, touching or cheesy. But until “After Earth,” he hadn’t made any that are dull from end to end.
He wrote the screenplay with Gary Whitta from a story by Will Smith. The three couldn’t come up with one original idea, one plot point that wasn’t predictable a mile off, one character development that wasn’t stolen from other pictures. You can spend the entire film saying “Surely they wouldn’t…” or “There has to be more to this” or “Any minute, the twist will come.” But they would, and there isn’t, and it never does.
The movie takes place 1,000 years after humans have made Earth uninhabitable and moved to Nova Prime. There they encounter the ursa, blind beasts that smell fear and slay anyone who exhibits it. Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has learned how to “ghost,” to walk among the ursa without being recognized, so he now trains rangers to protect the people. His son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), consistently excels in class but chokes in the field and has never gotten ranger status.
Cypher takes Kitai on a training mission to another planet, but an asteroid storm blows their ship off course and scatters pieces of it across an uninhabitable planet. (No prizes for guessing where they come down.) No one’s alive but Kitai and Cypher, the latter with two broken legs. So Dad fits his son with a remote camera and guides him to the rescue beacon stashed in a distant chunk of the ship.
The writers don’t make even a token effort to be smart. Vast segments of the planet reach sub-freezing temperatures every night, but its tropical plants conceal jungle animals, such as baboons and big cats. Cypher tells Kitai that the best place to send a signal into outer space is atop an active volcano that’s belching forth an ash cloud.
Meanwhile, slender little Kitai shows superhero speed, strength and stamina, leaping up after being slammed into boulders and outrunning predatory, pack-hunting creatures in their natural habitats.
Will Smith decided the way to play a fearless man is to speak slowly in a deep voice, wearing a grave expression. With Cypher immobile, though, most of the action falls to his real-life son, and Jaden doesn’t have the charisma to carry that much of the burden. He’s not helped by the script’s superficial father-son dynamic: Kitai resents Cypher for having been on an assignment when an ursa killed his sister. (“She called out for you, but you were gone! You’re always gone!”)
Shyamalan’s movies generally look good, and this is no exception. Production designer Tomas Sanders creates towering futuristic cities reliant on solar and wind power, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky makes the dangerous planet seductively lovely.
But it’s time for the quality of the words in Shyamalan’s films to match the quality of the images. That hasn’t happened since “Unbreakable” 13 years ago. It may not happen again, as long as he insists on contributing to screenplays.
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