After 2010’s horrific The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan returns with After Earth, a sci-fi movie that’s slow on the uptake but trying its hardest to be deep and meaningful. It is a much more mature movie than its predecessor, with careful production design and a narrative flow that’s more logical. The number of characters has been stripped down from about a billion to just two: A father and his son. The father is played by Will Smith, and his son is played by Smith’s real life son, Jaden. Naturally, they make a good team, but a good team isn’t enough to make a movie successful.
The story isn’t a fresh one: A stern military man has distanced himself from his family so much that they don’t really know who he is anymore. His youngest, Kitai (Jaden Smith), admires him still, and wants to become a Ranger like him. It’s that old “I want to live up to your expectations” chestnut. He has to call him “sir”, and live by rules and regulations that are strict, yes, but evidently necessary. Kitai wants love, affection, and acceptance; his dad, Cypher, just wants the best for his family. He is the more complex of the two because he has a lesson to learn. He has ways about himself that he has to change. Kitai, on the other hand, is a child. He has a past to grow out of, but his inherent character is straight and true.
They are part of a large refugee colony, settled on the distant planet of Nova Prime. Why? Because Earth has become uninhabitable; it’s been overrun by mutated, aggressive creatures that are programmed to hunt and destroy humans. It’s a very convenient twist. The story starts proper when Cypher’s ship hurtles out of an asteroid field and crashes into Earth’s atmosphere, leaving the ship in two, and Cypher and Kitai as the only survivors. Again, very convenient. Now, Cypher’s legs and the safety beacon device thingy have been broken. The oxygen level in the air is thin and cannot sustain human life. In order to survive, they must acquire a second safety beacon device thingy from the tail end of the ship, which has landed some 100 kilometres away. Also, the tail may or may not have a giant killing machine known as an Ursa. Not so convenient.
This is where the movie kick starts and takes off, becoming a rather lengthy tale about a boy growing up and earning his father’s respect. What bothers me the most about all this is that behind Shyamalan’s sleek camerawork and detailed design, there is nothing original about Kitai’s quest. There is nothing intrinsically important about what he has to do, and why he has to do it. Kitai is like Will Robinson; he has big ambitions and goals that should, by his account, make his father proud. But his father isn’t interested, or he’s too busy with bigger issues to care. Only when something threatening barges into their lives does the father take notice. In Lost In Space, Will impresses his father with a time machine that his future self makes. In After Earth, Kitai does the same, but by running great distances and slaying giant monsters instead. What does he, or any of us for that matter, have to learn?
M. Night Shyamalan is not a good director. He is a competent one, yes, but he fails to understand the logistics of film, and its sentimentality. It is not always about the technique and the twist; it’s about investing in characters and stories that we can also invest in. Was I invested in the characters of After Earth? Yes, I was. But I wasn’t invested in the story, because there is no beginning and no end. It is made up of components that seem to be borrowed from elsewhere; Green Lantern, The Lord Of The Rings, The Matrix, Oblivion even. It is a well made movie, but it has nothing of value to offer. It is not too long or too boring. It is of just the right length, but maybe it needs a peak or two; something to punctuate its monotonous tone. When the end of the movie comes, we don’t feel relieved, happy, or even satisfied. We are unmoved. Maybe even blank. At least Lost In Space was entertaining.
Best Moment | Kitai playing with his dad’s cutlass. It’s a pretty cool weapon, and I think its blades are made from the same technology that runs Krypton in Man Of Steel.
Worst Moment | The delivery of Kitai’s lines. He’s not a good actor. Period.