The metaphor of a young bird leaving the nest is a lesson all children learn, and usually at a young age (it’s just not enforced until much later). Someone looked at this lesson, must have thought, “I like it, but how can we make it cost over $100 million?”, and the result was After Earth. It’s not a bad lesson, but it’s hardly enough to support an entire movie. Resting almost entirely on lead actors Jaden and Will Smith, director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan surrounds the picture with sub-par special effects and bland action scenes. Jaden Smith provides a strong lead performance, but his character is undermined by the story’s laughably literal moments, and a journey that rarely enthralls and never surprises.
One-thousand years in the future, humanity has fled Earth and resettled on a new planet, Nova Prime. Unfortunately, aliens also want the planet, and have sent down creatures called “Ursas” to eliminate humanity. A group of soldiers known as Rangers were called upon to fight the creatures, and the best of them is Cypher Raige (W. Smith), who has the ability to “ghost”. The Ursas are blind, but can smell the pheromones created by fear. Cypher can suppress his fear, easily kill Ursas, and thus has become the most recognized and respected general on the planet. His son Kitai (J. Smith) wants to escape from his father’s shadow, and his abilities are tested when the two crash land on Earth. Cypher’s legs are broken, so Kitai must trek across the dangerous landscape in order to retrieve a rescue beacon from the tail section of their broken spaceship.
I’ve come to accept the rules provided in futuristic sci-fi stories. The constant questions are, “Why doesn’t ‘X’ exist?” and “Why do people in the future do ‘Y’?” and After Earth raises those questions. The main weapon is a shifting blade that has different settings. But we’re left to wonder why humanity can master space flight but not create guns. There’s also the characters’ bizarre accent, but like the guns, you just have to let it drop. After Earth isn’t trying to draw us into a finely-drawn society. It’s setting up simple details for the larger adventure. Unfortunately, that adventure never becomes particularly exciting.
The structure is there with escalating stakes and legitimate threats such as Kitai needing to take oxygen tablets every 24 hours, and then pushing the limits of whether or not he’ll have enough to make the journey. Cypher also has to worry about whether or not he’ll be able to live through his injury, and guide his son back to safety. In between, the father-son bond is slowly repaired as Kitai mans up, and faces the wild beasts and environmental hazards. Also, because an Ursa was on their ship and managed to escape, we know what lies ahead at the end of Kitai’s journey.
The clear roadmap turns After Earth into a series of rote events with only Jaden Smith’s performance to provide some life to the proceedings. Will Smith is stuck inside the broken ship, and his performance consists of being on the verge of tears, partially from the pain and partially from guilt. The movie mostly rests on Jaden Smith, and he carries it as well as he can. But even the strength of his performance can’t push past the plot’s more ridiculous aspects.
Putting aside the bland CGI (it’s not the worst in recent years, but it’s certainly dated), the story takes the lesson far too literally. At one point, Kitai literally has to exit a nest. Later on, he has to fly even though his father doesn’t think he’s ready. To expand this simple metaphor into major set pieces feels ridiculous, not only because they’re literal, but because there are so many other ways to create drama. Kitai fighting off CGI pumas has none of the dramatic effect as another where we see the young man poisoned by a leech, his body quickly seizing up, and his father trying to guide him through administering the antitoxin. It’s an emotional moment that’s filled with tension.
So it’s odd that the character’s major aspiration is to be free from an emotion. The notion of “ghosting” is that removing fear is the ultimate ability one can aspire towards. But that’s not courage. Courage is acknowledging fear, and fighting through it. The fear never leaves us, and that internal battle creates drama. To remove fear entirely is to remove a piece of our humanity, and so how is an ultimate ranger any better than a mindless Ursa? Just because being fearful is bad, that doesn’t mean being fearless is good. I can accept the setting of After Earth, but its values are anti-climatic.
This goal is made even worse since we know ghosting is Kitai’s aspiration. Shyamalan has become infamous for his twists, but here he provides the anti-twist. It’s a movie that goes exactly where you expect it to. The irony is that in a story about the importance of leaving the nest, Shyamalan has run to the safest space possible. He’s done taking chances after the endless backlash, and his atrocious adaptation of The Last Airbender showed he couldn’t even hit a softball down the middle. After Earth is an even safer bet because it has the bankable Will Smith, and no fanbase to disappoint. The result is serviceable and forgettable. Learning the value of courage is important, and After Earth should have adhered to its own lesson.