By Gary Dowell
For the past few years, critiquing a movie by M. Night Shyamalan has been something akin to shooting fish in a barrel, with a rocket launcher. The auteur wowed viewers with his carefully crafted The Sixth Sense in 1999, but he’s failed to live up to his potential since then. In fact, the quality of his work has declined immediately and steadily ever since, bottoming out with Lady in the Water (2006), crashing hard with The Happening (2008), and bursting into flames with The Last Airbender (2010).
With his latest effort, the science fiction survival drama After Earth, Shyamalan strips his technique down to the nuts-and-bolts basics of cinematic storytelling, but the story is emotionally distant, the plot is predictable, and the details are blandly derivative.
A clunky world-building prologue sets the stage: It’s one thousand years in the future, and environmental damage has long since forced mankind to abandon the planet and take up residence on other worlds. One of the worlds brought humans into conflict with vicious aliens known as the Ursa; they lack eyes, but can track humans by the pheromones we release when afraid — they can literally smell our fear. Standing against them the Rangers, humans warriors who can control their fear and become invisible to the Ursa.
Young cadet Kitai Raige aspires to join their ranks, but he lacks the maturity and self-control, and his frustration is compounded by the fact that his father is the legendary-to-the-point-of-godlike General Cypher Raige (Jaden’s father Will Smith), with whom he shares a strained relationship.
In order to have some quality bonding time, Cypher takes Kitai on a trip that goes awry when their ship is forced to crashland on a quarantined Earth. The only survivors are a gravely injured Cypher, frightened Kitai, and a captured Ursa that gets loose and is on the hunt. Kitai must hike across a forbidding and hostile landscape to activate a distress beacon, a trial by fire that will make him into a man or kill him in the process.
Basically, it’s a bargain bin Avatar meets The Grey, with a little of The Great Santini thrown in for the hell of it. It all adds up to very little, however, as Shyamalan’s increasingly tone-deaf approach to drama makes for an emotionally limp story. The father-son tension is strictly routine and of the ABC After-School Special variety, and every beat of the story is predictable.
This leaves the Smith Family Robinson saddled with the job of perking up the material, which they fail to do in grand style. Will plays the emotionally locked-down Cypher with so much coldness and distance that he lives up to his sadly appropriate name, and Jaden is stiff, short on charisma, and overwrought to the degree that one is compelled to root for the carnivores.