Post Tenebras DeLuxe, by Scott Nye
There seem to be an infinite number of ways to interpret After Earth, the brainchild of Will Smith delivered by M. Night Shyamalan. Whether you look at it as a Scientologist fable, a parallel to a father watching his son go through the gauntlet of the Hollywood machine, or something to do with patterns (boom), the options may just be limitless. More than anything actually embedded in the work, intentional or otherwise, however, much of this could be said to stem from the simple universality of the piece, the stripped-down nature of its narrative and characters, and the almost pulled-from-stock setting. Shyamalan and Smith (who has a “story by” credit in addition to his usual producing role) don’t push their premise past its breaking point, content to deliver a tense, focused piece of genre entertainment.
1,000 years into the future, humanity has abandoned Earth for the usual host of reasons, and taken to the stars. Their new homeworld is pretty badass until they have to contend with an alien race, against whom they are basically helpless, until God-among-men Cypher Raige (Smith) figures out that, since this race detects humans by smelling a pheromone secreted when they experience fear, the humans simply have to suppress that fear and they will become invisible. Then, victory. Anyway, all of this is backstory, getting us to the point when, looking for a little father-son bonding time, Cypher takes his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), on a long ride through space, which is going pretty nicely until the ship rams into an asteroid field and is forced to land – wait for it – back on Earth. And wouldn’t you know it, everyone aboard the ship died except for the Raiges (as they’re known on their Christmas cards, presumably). Worse still, the distress beacon was flung in the wreckage several dozen miles away, and worse still, both of Cypher’s legs are broken, leaving still-very-much-in-training Kitai to traverse the now-very-dangerous terrain to retrieve it. If he doesn’t, they will die.
Heightening the tension for this set-up is the fact that Cypher, what with being able to suppress his emotions and all, is not the nicest guy in the solar system, and most of his exchanges with his son, even before they crash, are terse and free from sentiment, yet, like most kids, Kitai is eager to win, if not his dad’s affections, then at least his pride and approval. Their exchanges throughout most of the first, and first half of the second (during which Kitai is on his own in the jungle, but still electronically communicating with Dad), acts, are nicely peppered with reminders of not the normal authority role of a father, but of more active subordination on Kitai’s part. Cypher treats him like a soldier, not a son, a relationship most subtly distinguished when he addresses a group of misbehaving troops who rope Kitai into doing something he probably shouldn’t, and Cypher addresses them all in one manner.
Shyamalan is careful to not break what little bond they have, and their wireless conversations never feel like phone calls, even if this results in some awkward staging, calling for Jaden Smith to yell at no particular presence with all the immediacy of a physical confrontation. Will Smith plays detached fairly well throughout the whole movie, so his receiving-end role is less damaged by this, and, as someone who admires Smith’s intensity as a performer, I found much to appreciate here, even if the entertainment value is (perhaps necessarily) tempered. Jaden mostly holds his own when on his own, though any emotion too extreme remains somewhat out of his reach, and the inevitable call for him to suppress his own fear is met with a simple blankness that conveys disinterest, rather than focus.
Where Shyamalan unsurprisingly excels is in crafting tension, and while the planet is never the every-creature-for-itself hellhole that Cypher makes it out to be, he withholds its many pitfalls in any number of engaging ways. The big mistake, however, is in letting the planet be as much a creation of computer effects as anything in space, which had a sterile feel that I felt nicely set up the extent to which humans are now disengaged from the wild, but which doesn’t pay off as soon as the wild feels similarly “designed.” Plants, animals, rocks, weather changes, and waterfalls all feel deliberately placed, not the result of a found environment, and even if any number of CGI creatures come to create legitimate threats, the urgency is subtly diminished; we’re always certain something will be placed in Kitai’s path to get him out of jam.
Within those confines, however, After Earth is a pleasing affair, running under 100 minutes (without the credits) and hardly wasting a one of them. The father/son development works very well organically, illustrating that even the man without fear will come to fear something when he is without control and the outcome affects someone other than himself, a distinction Smith highlights without being terribly aggressive about it. As engaging as Shyamalan can be when he’s completely out on a limb, this is a great reminder that, once he’s behind the camera, he’s a damned good storyteller.