Hit and miss director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening) returns with After Earth, a sci-fi adventure with a story from Will Smith.
An eye-catching opener launches audiences straight into a crash landing. Quickly and predictably, however, we’re returned to a prologue - a brief history of human existence one thousand years into the future.
Through pollution and climate change, humans have made Earth uninhabitable and have relocated to Nova Prime. But in their first days on Nova Prime humans are not alone. A race of aliens known as Ursas identify human life by pheromones - the scent of fear - and wage war on the new inhabitants. Austere General, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), masters fear and is able to ‘ghost’, avoiding Ursa detection.
Prologue over, After Earth returns us to Nova Prime for a fleeting encounter with the Raige family unit. When General Cypher returns to his family from a protracted absence he finds his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) distant and frustrated. After deciding to go on a father-son bonding trip to another planet, their spaceship crash lands on Earth - now a lush and thriving planet whose inhabitants pose a real threat to the humans who injured it. Kitai must now face his fears, and an Ursa, in order to save his father.
After Earth follows a predictable plot - somewhat surprising for an M. Night Shyamalan movie - and makes no attempt at twists or ingenuity. Glimmers of Shyamalan’s penchant for strangeness remain limited to a weird and unexpected take on evolution as our hero’s kindness is repaid by a giant bird that has somehow gained a conscience. The film’s alien rivals are scary enough - their attempts to incite fear being one of the film’s bolder devices - but Kitai’s final showdown is inevitable from the outset.
Shyamalan makes a solid attempt at styling a future world. The film’s scenery plays on natural elements - people sleep in hammocks, space ships are styled like stingrays and interiors are made up of giant bones - and the numerous gadgets have an organic, pre-historic edge including motion sensitive apparel and multi-action sabers. Perhaps a refreshing change from the clean, futuristic lines of much recent sci-fi, but this natural styling seems more concerned with the theme of environmental protection than creating a believable and immersive future.
In a more ambitious turn, After Earth tries desperately to grapple with internalised feelings of guilt and blame - Kitai’s mistakes as a child are replayed frequently in the minds of both himself and his father - but as the movie increasingly focusses on its action centred plot this emotional theme doesn’t quite come off.
As the absent father, Will Smith sits back in a sparse supporting role and After Earth becomes very much Jaden Smith’s movie. Sketchy in the film’s early emotional scenes, Jaden proves capable in the film’s action sequences, giving off an air of vulnerability that works for his naive character. Limited variation from Kitai’s sulky determination, however, makes for a dull watch. As our two main characters spend the majority of the movie in different places, communicating only via a video screen, there’s little opportunity for Jaden and Will Smith to interact, further hampering the film’s emotional overtones.
After Earth is another disappointing offering from the once lauded director M. Night Shyamalan. Emotional themes are thwarted by lack-lustre performances and muffled beneath a predictable, action centred plot that sees its main protagonists thrust into isolation. After Earth is an easy watch but an uninspiring addition to the sci-fi genre.
Running Time: 90 minutes