June 3, 2013 by Zack
“Danger can be very real. Fear is a choice.” That’s a line from Cypher Raige in “After Earth”, a film that is so very basic and simple in its storytelling, it was refreshing to see a science fiction film that really understood the medium. The film takes place in the future, of course, and Earth is no longer inhabitable. Instead, there are human colonies set up on another planet in the solar system. But humans are not entirely safe after evacuating earth. There is an alien race that wants to destroy humans inhabiting Nova Prime (the new planet the humans have colonized) and their weapon of choice is a creature known as an Ursa, which can sense fear and find and kill humans that way since they can’t hear, smell or see. But there are certain humans who can “ghost”, which means they do not give off fear and can remain undetected by the Ursas, killing them undetected.
General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is one such “ghoster”, and also is a superior Ranger who leads a group of other Rangers on one last mission before retirement (of course!) including his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has failed becoming a Ranger thus disappointing his father. There’s another backstory regarding the father/son relationship as well, though, that complicates it a bit more. We learn that Kitai had a sister named Senshi who was killed by an Ursa while Kitai was a boy, and he watched her die from a little bubble she had put him in to protect him. Cypher believes he should have saved her. While Kitai is riddled with guilt, he also feels his father should have been there as well, instead of just on some other mission.
The two of them are thrust into a very dire situation when their ship hits an asteroid belt and they are forced to crash land on earth, susceptible to all of the problems that the planet has now such as large, primal animals that will kill them; and, tempature shifts that cause the planet to freeze overnight. In the crash, everyone but the father and son are killed. Cypher is badly injured, and so it’s up to his son, Kitai, to retrieve a beacon from the tail end of the ship that landed halfway across the planet. The atmosphere is not breathable so he has to take oxygen capsules with him in order to survive. This sets up what I call the “video game plot”, in which a character’s only means are basic tools that all will serve a very specific purpose in getting to the end and completing the mission. You realize, too, that whatever the character is given will be challenged and possibly taken away during the course of the plot as well.
The story unfolds predictably; but it’s directed at such a good pace by M. Night Shyamalan that it feels okay to just sit back and enjoy it. The morality tale that lies beneath the action is nice, and the performances by Smith and his son work even though the elder Smith is far superior as an actor and has much better range. It rarely is distracting because the two of them rarely share the same screen time since Kitai is off on the planet and Cypher is back in the ship, directing him through a communicator.
There’s a nice little subplot involving a large condor as well that serves as possibly the only other “character” in the story. But the focus is mainly on the father and son, and their journey not only to recover this beacon to send a distress call, but also to mend their relationship. For Kitai, he must get over his fear and guilt in order to survive the final “boss” of the film, an escaped Ursa that was being brought along on the ship in captivity. For Cypher, he too has guilt over allowing his daughter to die and his own fear of losing his only other child.
The climax and resolution is satisfying, mainly because the film does not rely on a deus ex machina like so many sci-fi films do these days. Instead, Kitai must look within himself in order to “ghost”; and while you still have to suspend disbelief a bit in some of the third act, we’re invested enough in the characters by then to forgive some things that are outlandish. This is sci-fi fantasy, after all.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a film directed by Shyamalan and it was nice to see him take a step back a bit. He co-wrote this film, and Will Smith provided the story. I think it was smart for Shyamalan to share this time, and it should benefit him for the future if this film is a success. On balance it is a nice enough film with plenty of thrills and even some touching moments that were unexpected. I hope this is the start of a recovery for Shyamalan. As for Jaden Smith, he still has a long way to go. But this was certainly a big step for him