Science fiction’s most thriving subset, the postapocalyptic survival spectacle, gets a martial coming-of-age spin in M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, with a young boy, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), hustling his narrow butt across 100 kilometres of a hostile planet Earth to retrieve a life-saving message beacon that will summon help for him and his crash-landed dad Cypher (Will Smith, real-life dad to Jaden).
The set up: One thousand years after Earth was abandoned – not even Tom Cruise stuck around – all life forms on the planet have rather petulantly evolved to kill humans. On a trip where he intends to guide his son through the requisite training rituals of “ghosting,” which means conquering your fears so completely that nasty man-eating creatures won’t be able to smell you sweat, Cypher’s ship goes down on the forsaken planet, killing all aboard but him and his son. Cypher – a legendary “ghost” – is too badly injured to do anything but monitor his son’s progress while gravely intoning such unsoothing paternal bromides as, “Don’t get me wrong. Danger is real. Fear is a choice,” and Kitai must run a gauntlet of hyper-hostile natural elements and one highly motivated ghost-training monster sprung by the wreck. No whimpering allowed. Become a drone or die alone.
Replacing the customary doomsday barrenness with a computer-generated verdancy that suggests a National Geographic special conceived by gaming geeks, After Earth at least looks distinctive, and the movie’s overall atmosphere of close-quarter jungle delirium is enhanced by the cramped, earth-toned interiors of spaceships, off-world colony condos and crashed cockpits. When Kitai is dispatched into an atmosphere where breathable air is at a premium, the gasping comes honestly.
Production notes reveal After Earth was originally conceived by star Smith as a tale of a camping trip gone wrong, but mutated into a full-blown summer CGI-fest when it was presumably realized that a): that more ancillary spinoff stuff (video games, comics, toys etc.) could be sold if it supplanted spaceships for SUVs; b) that few of us would sit still for a movie about Will Smith talking to his son over a cellphone no matter how many angry bears were lurking about; c) that camping-trip-gone-wrong movies sort of peaked with Deliverance; and d), that young Jaden Smith was probably far more at home skedaddling for his life across an angry postapocalyptic planet Earth than pretending he’d ever been on a camping trip.
When it came to casting the right director, Smith apparently turned to the gifted but surprise-ending-prone Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Lady in the Water), which makes this movie the first the director has made from someone else’s script. That there are no surprises (jumps, yes, surprises, no) should surprise no one – Will Smith movies must uplift the human spirit and reaffirm our best instincts while reassuring us that our ticket money has been well invested. Ergo, the Earth may have come to a savage and unhappy end, but that doesn’t mean the movie has to follow suit.