Most of the career of M. Night Shyamalan, director of After Earth, could be characterized as “After The Sixth Sense.” His work over the decade-plus since that 1999 ghost-story classic has largely been a string of interesting failures, except for 2010’s The Last Airbender, which wasn’t very interesting, and 2004’s The Village, which wasn’t a failure, though I’m apparently in the minority in that opinion.
Shyamalan is full of intriguing ideas, and he’s able to get terrific performances out of his actors. His troubles, at least in part, may have arisen because The Sixth Sense ended with a seamlessly-constructed surprise, and his subsequent films have almost all tried for a similar revelatory effect, with far less success. On the basis of one dazzling twist ending, he became known as the Twist Ending Guy, and he just wasn’t up to it.
His latest, After Earth, is no great shakes, but it has, at least, the virtue of being straightforward. Perhaps because he was principally a hired gun here—the script is by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, from a story conceived by star and executive producer Will Smith—Shyamalan doesn’t bust a gut trying to blow our minds.
As with so many of his films, After Earth has a laborious-to-explain backstory. Here goes: Having trashed Earth by about the middle of this century, humans abandon it for a new planet called Nova Prime. An alien race resents the invasion, and releases hideous creatures called “Ursas,” who are eyeless but able to track humans through the pheromones we secrete when afraid, and who have the charming habit of impaling their victims on tree branches, like shrikes. The Ursas are foiled, about a thousand years from now, by a stalwart Supreme Commander named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) who learns to battle them without fear, a technique he calls “ghosting.”
All of this is prologue, and as contrived as it sounds (and is) it really just amounts to an overcomplicated set-up for a boy’s-book adventure. As soon as After Earth gets going as such, it’s watchable and reasonably exciting.
The story proper centers on Cypher’s teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has a distant relationship with his famous father, linked to a shared tragedy. When the spaceship on which they’re traveling crashes on the now-uninhabited Earth, and Cypher is too badly injured to walk, Kitai must make his way, with his father coaching him, to another piece of the wreck, miles away, to send a distress signal.
His father tells him that all the life forms on Earth have evolved to kill humans—odd, since it’s only been a thousand years—and Kitai does indeed encounter souped-up versions of baboons, raptors, tigers and other creatures. He’s also stalked by an Ursa that was aboard the spaceship (being transported for training purposes) and has escaped.
Except in its opening quarter, and a few flashbacks and dream sequences, the movie is essentially a two-character play. The dialogue given to Will Smith is in a stiffly military idiom, and he plays it very straight, but skillfully. Jaden Smith, rightly top-billed, has a little trouble with his diction, but as in the Karate Kid remake in 2010, he has a touchingly vulnerable-looking physicality, and his put-upon facial expressions are amusing.
The theme of After Earth—that “danger is very real, but fear is a choice”—is problematic. It’s expressed by Cypher in a showcase monologue, in which he describes realizing, in a life-or-death moment, that his fear was a fantasy, based on a story he was telling himself about the future. I would point out that the physiological symptoms of fear usually are not a choice, and that they’re just as “real” as, say, the tornado or the charging lion that causes them. More importantly, fear isn’t always debilitating; sometimes it’s lifesaving, as Liam Neeson’s character pointed out in the similarly-themed (though much less pleasant) film The Grey.
I don’t think this is hair-splitting. I think misunderstanding this point—confusing caution with paralysis—is what leads to stupidly reckless risks, especially by the young. Bravery isn’t about suppressing fear, it’s about acting, when necessary, in spite of fear. Besides, most threats to life and limb aren’t like the Ursas—they can still see and smell (and taste) you whether you’re afraid of them or not. Lack of fear in the face of legitimate danger really should be called “ghosting,” because it can quickly make you into a ghost.