The action is set a thousand years after humanity had to evacuate a despoiled Earth for a distant solar system, to which the species has adapted. Mankind’s main obstacle is a monster race, called Ursa, which is blind and detects its human prey by smell—literally, by the scent of fear, as it emerges in the form of pheromones. Only those who have no fear have a chance of slaying an Ursa; that phenomenon of undetectable fearlessness is called “ghosting.” Will Smith, as the military commander Cypher Raige, has it. His son, Kitai, a cadet seeking promotion to ranger, only aspires to it. Father and son are passengers on a flight to another planet when their spacecraft gets caught in an asteroid storm and is forced to crash-land on Earth. Cypher and Kitai, apparently the only survivors, need to send a rescue signal with a special transmitter that’s in the tail of the shattered craft, a hundred kilometres away. Cypher broke both of his legs, and so Kitai must make the journey alone.
It’s not giving away too much to explain that the futuristic technology (which is imagined thinly but with verve) involves a “Naviband,” a device strapped to Kitai’s forearm that allows Cypher to see everything taking place around the young man and to communicate with him—in effect, a super cell phone—and that the drama kicks into high gear when it’s disabled and Kitai has to make his way through Earth’s dangers on his own. The future features advanced versions of other contemporary child-safety paraphernalia, such as the EpiPen and the asthma inhaler.
Kitai’s journey of initiation, subject to a set of rules (each inhaler lasts twenty to twenty-four hours; he has six inhalers; each leg of the journey takes a certain amount of time…), plays out like a live-action video game, and, as the movie progresses, new rules present new challenges, their changing demands even posted on-screen in the protagonists’ video arrays. Whether or not the similarity is intended, it’s worth noting—as I discovered just now by clicking around on IMDb—that the co-scenarist Whitta “was editor of PC Gamer for several years,” as well as a writer for the games “Prey” and “The Walking Dead.” It’s an aesthetically neutral matter regarding the film (though these elements do seem foregrounded in a way that is occasionally unintentionally comical), but I wonder if there’s an actual “After Earth” game on its way. I suspect it would be a lot more fun than the movie itself.
“After Earth” is also an allegory of the family business, a public affirmation that Will Smith is yielding the spotlight to Jaden and letting him run free as an actor. Since Jaden spends much of his time on-screen as the only person in the frame, the responsibility of performance does fall squarely on his young shoulders.
Unfortunately, Jaden, though agile and skillful, isn’t a charismatic actor; he doesn’t put a lot of personality into the part, and he doesn’t have a deft way with the dialogue. Meanwhile, Will Smith doesn’t give himself very much to do, and what he does do is close to a parody of set-jawed war-movie determination. As drama, “After Earth” offers no surprises; as action, it’s rarely stimulating (there’s exactly one shot—from Kitai’s point of view as he’s being dragged to safety by a hidden benefactor—that reflects visual imagination); as a parenting manual, it seems that Will has thrown Jaden into water that’s a little too deep. For all the free-range plotting, Will does play a large role in the movie, suggesting all too clearly that Jaden isn’t quite ready to go as far out on his own as the story suggests Kitai must.
Of course, it’s too soon to tell what kind of acting chops, what kind of allure beyond the childhood cuteness of “The Karate Kid,” Jaden Smith has. He may prove to be formidable, but I suspect that to become so, he’ll need to work in a wider range of movies, perhaps a smaller scale—movies that allow him to cultivate on-screen relationships with a variety of actors, including ones his own age, and away from his father’s spotlight and counsel.
As for Shyamalan, his direction is impersonal, efficient, and clean—even too clean, resulting in an action film that doesn’t move. It’s worth comparing his blandly clear images with the kinetic frenzy that the director Gary Ross, working with the cinematographer Tom Stern, created for “The Hunger Games.” I wonder whether the placid stolidity of “After Earth” is intended to showcase the actors as if in a picture gallery—a sort of favor returned or service rendered. (Andrew Stewart reports in Variety that “It was [Will] Smith who hand-picked Shyamalan to direct ‘After Earth.’ ”)
I’ve seen a couple of reports (here and here) speculating that “After Earth” is inspired by Scientology. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Will Smith performs with an unappealing and constrained earnestness. The movie offers no trace of Will Smith, the mercurial and hearty comedian, or Will Smith, the introspective and fierce dramatic actor of “Ali.” I have no idea whether it’s dogma, paternal sentimentality, or mere actorly choice that burdens him in “After Earth,” but the result is the diminution of a superb performer, his self reduced to a celebrity emblem that advertises the movie from within.
Credit: After Earth: Official Site.