For some reason Hollywood has been enamored of light about films dealing with the end of life on Earth as we know it. Earlier this year we had “Oblivion.” Later this summer we’ll get “Elysium.” And this week we get Big Willie and his little boy in “After Earth.”
As the story begins we learn that the earth was invaded by an alien life form called Ursas. Unable to see the creatures hunted people down by smelling the pheromones they secreted when they became scared. Things were getting bad when a man named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) showed up. Showing no fear whatsoever he battled the creatures, killing them by the score. A term was coined for what he did – “ghosting.” With no pheromones to detect he was able to move among the Ursas and kill them at will. The Earth was left to its own defenses as the remaining members of the human race moved to a new home, called Nova Prime. It is hear that Raige’s son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is training hard to be a cadet, to one day follow his father. Kitai also has a secret that haunts him. When he was younger and home with his older sister (Zoe Kravitz, Lenny’s daughter) an Ursa attacked. As Kitai stayed safe in a protective dome that blocked his pheromones from being detected, sis ventured out, believing that, like her father, she could “ghost.” She couldn’t. Hoping to reconnect with his family, Cypher informs them that he is set to retire. After one more mission.
Visually impressive but sadly incredulous, “After Earth” is only redeemed by the performances of the Smith family. Jaden, who made a strong screen debut opposite his pop in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and starred in the successful remake of “The Karate Kid” has grown not only as a young man but as an actor. The plot involves the two to basically act alone – Cypher is injured in a crash and must remain in the damaged ship while Kitai is given the task of traveling on foot to retrieve a rescue beacon. Smith senior gives a very emotional performance, made even stronger by the fact that he’s basically sitting in a chair for the majority of the film. On the other side of the spectrum, Jaden runs, jumps and battles everything from a rogue pack of primates to a pride of lions to a giant bird. The visual effects are strong, especially during interactions with the various animals.
M. Night Shyamalan has always been a competent filmmaker, despite his penchant to put “twist” endings on many of his films. No such thing here which is somewhat of a relief. However, there are still other hints of Shyamalan in the film, beginning with the confusing state of Cypher’s rank. He’s referred to as anything from General to Prime Leader to Colonel (apparently making a movie with your son can get you busted down in rank). The film is also full of some intense lines, like “Danger is Real…Fear is a choice!” At night the temperature on Earth falls to glacier epics, freezing everything in its path. However, the next day everything is green again. And even though the Ursa is highly deadly, it is guarded on board ship by the Keystone Cops, the kind who all huddle with the monster, surely must wonder how the cloth shower curtains at the entrance of its compartment are keeping them safe from being eaten. Or not.
Again, if you like the Smith’s and want to see a couple of good performances, then take an hour and a half to check out “After Earth.” If not…”Star Trek: Into Darkness” is probably playing next door.