Director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan has gone from being Mr. Twist, thanks to The Sixth Sense to the most doggedly straightforward storyteller on the planet, judging from the modestly entertaining After Earth. It’s essentially a two-hander showcasing the Smiths, Will and Jaden.
Smith the Younger has entered that phase of not-quite-this-not-quite-that-ness, which is the hallmark of being 14. He receives top billing; Smith the Elder, of I Am Legend and (with his son) The Pursuit of Happyness, makes do with second.
Co-written by Gary Whitta and the director, After Earth is an Outward Bound sort of adventure set 1,000-plus years hence. The usual dire scenario: Humanity’s cavalier treatment of Earth has led to a mass exodus, bigger than the exodus in Exodus, even. The planet is overrun by animals, birds, bugs and digital effects genetically evolved to kill humans, should they return.
Jaden S. plays Kitai, whose father, Cypher (Smith, W.), is a “prime commander” in the interplanetary security force. Cypher’s ability to “ghost” makes him invisible and fiendishly effective against the drooling alien beastie known as the Ursa. The Ursa may sound either like a U.S. governmental agency acronym or a Bond girl from the Sean Connery years, but it’s neither.
Pop takes junior on patrol with him (“Go and make some good memories together,” coos Mom, played by Sophie Okonedo), but one meteor shower and crash landing later, father and son are back on Earth, and Elder’s dealing with two broken legs and Skyping his advice to Younger while the Younger must a) locate the emergency beacon lost in the crash 100 kilometers away, and b) …
Surprise! There is no b). After Earth is what it is: a linear series of perils and obstacles. Questing for the beacon, Kitai contends with baboons, leeches, birds of prey, tigers and the Ursa. The picture has very little humor, but it doesn’t go in for the typical digital assault on the eyes. Shyamalan recovers rather well here, after the wobbly series of pictures he made after Signs: The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. Shot in Switzerland, Northern California redwood country and Costa Rica, among other locales, After Earth won’t change your world, but it’s attractive (Airbender looked like pure crud) and Smith the Elder, lowering his voice to subterranean James Earl Jones levels, delivers a shrewd minimalist performance. His son may get there yet.
The script, for the record, answers an important question. The answer is yes. A thousand years from now, tough guys will still say, “I’m good to go” when they’re good to go.
After Earth (PG-13) ★★★☆☆