(by Dustin Putman
There was a time, as little as five years ago, when any new film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was treated less like a regular theatrical opening and more like an outright event. He earned this lofty caché first with 1999's incredible, game-changing supernatural drama "The Sixth Sense," then with 2000's innovative superhero tale "Unbreakable" and 2002's masterful alien invasion thriller "Signs." Riding high off of a string of successes and an only sometimes relevant moniker—"King of the Twist Ending"—Shyamalan split eager audience opinion with 2004's revisionist period creature feature "The Village," and then started to truly lose his way. 2006's convoluted fairy tale "Lady in the Water" and 2008's R-rated eco-nightmare "The Happening" exhibited spurts of the filmmaker's inspired talent, but both of them quickly fell apart, collapsing under their own self-importance. Indeed, neither came close to living up to what they were capable of achieving. 2010's "The Last Airbender" was the final straw for many former Shyamalan fans, a loose live-action adaptation of the Manga fantasy series overflowing with embarrassing dialogue and amateurish performances (the off-putting 3D, stripping the visuals of their vibrancy and detail, didn't help). "The Last Airbender" was a surprise international hit, particularly because one would be hard-pressed to find someone who liked it. It is a testament to Shyamalan that he continues to work on big-budget studio projects, many of them created by him from the ground up, but also a sad truth that his name now carries with it negative assumptions rather than be an emblem of surefire quality. Article continues below
For the first time since hitting it big, Shyamalan's latest feature, the futuristic sci-fi adventure "After Earth," all but completely hides who it is directed by. Once a major selling point, his credit here is seen only on the very bottom of the final one-sheet for "After Earth" and hidden entirely from the trailers and advertising & marketing campaign. Perhaps it's just as well; his signature style and atmosphere are all but entirely vacant from the finished product, which never shifts out of first gear. Inert and curiously unimaginative in a year when the science-fiction genre has been particularly inspired—over the last month and change, "Oblivion" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" have thoroughly impressed. By comparison, "After Earth" comes off as overly familiar schlock that just so happens to have solid production values.
It has been one thousand years since Earth self-destructed, ravaged by natural disasters and a deteriorating environmental infrastructure. The surviving humans evacuated the planet, settling on a new home known as Nova Prime. For 13-year-old Kitai (Jaden Smith), who is training to become a ranger like his often absent father, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), he worries that he will let his dad down if he doesn't follow in his footsteps. Struggling to connect to each other when Cypher is home—says wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo), "He doesn't need a commanding officer; he needs a father"—the elder Raige decides to bring him along on his last mission before he intends to retire. En route, a meteor shower damages the spacecraft, causing it to crash land on the now-uninhabitable Earth. With the rest of the crew dead and Cypher badly injured, it is up to Kitai to travel 100 kilometers across the harsh and wild landscape to find the tail of the ship and retrieve the beacon that will send help their way. If he doesn't succeed, father and son will be as good as dead.
Written by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (2010's "The Book of Eli"), based on a story idea from producer/co-star Will Smith (2012's "Men in Black 3"), "After Earth" features an intriguing kernel of an idea, but one that probably worked better as a log line than an expanded script. The pacing is all wrong, the actors asked to put on an irritating, affected accent that sounds like a British robot, stilted and cold. This weird decision creates a barrier between Kitai and dad Cypher, their relationship missing, well, humanity. The measured rhythm of the speech, further harmed by slack editing, keeps the narrative from ever taking off. On Kitai's journey, he must fight feral animals, deficient oxygen, and dangerous elements (at night, the land freezes over, save for sporadic "hot spots"), but there are no palpable thrills or suspense. By and large, it's disappointingly rote, and that includes a climax involving an alien creature that couldn't have possibly been more derivatively designed. Shyamalan should know better, and want to do better than that.
Jaden Smith (2010's "The Karate Kid") often reminds of a pint-sized Will Smith for obvious reasons, but the charisma of both actors is silenced by a script that is stodgy and unwilling to give either of them much personality. Instead, they go through the motions while sounding like manufactured Londoners. The rest of the cast are virtual day players, with Sophie Okonedo (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees") around just long enough as caring mother Faia to wish she didn't disappear to never be seen again by the 10-minute mark. A sign that some hefty cuts occurred during post-production, several months ago Isabelle Fuhrman (2012's "The Hunger Games") was third-billed on an early poster for the picture; since then, her part as Kitai's friend has been whittled down to a literally wordless one-second cameo with a second brief shot of her walking away in the background as another scene begins awkwardly in mid-flow.
As a father-son story, "After Earth" is unfeeling to the point of almost being dramatically comatose. As an action-adventure saga, there are some nifty shots—i.e., a herd of hundreds of buffalo crossing the countryside; a skydive off a cliff involving Kitai and a giant bird—and convincing special effects and art direction that never look like less than really there. Is there any genuine excitement created, though, or any scenes worthy of leaving the viewer pushed to the edge of their seat? Sadly, not one. Toward the end of the second act, Kitai faces a bitterly cold night and narrowly survives, the particulars of why he lived revealed afterwards in a single shot that speaks loud and clear about the sacrifices and compassion living creatures big and small are capable of. For all intents and purposes, it should be a singularly powerful moment, one of the most potent in the film. Instead, like the rest of the movie, it passes the viewer by with minimal connection or fanfare. This is not the same M. Night Shymalan who gave audiences a reason to shriek in fright one minute and uncontrollably weep the next during "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs." Where has that artist gone? "After Earth" bears the mark of a work-for-hire who has all but given up.