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Written by Gary Whitta (“Book of Eli”) and M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”), from a story by star Will Smith, “After Earth” was supposed to be about a father and son duo (the Smiths) trapped in the Alaskan wilderness and set in the modern day. That was apparently not fancy enough, so the film’s timeline was reset to 1,000 years in the future and Alaska swapped with a futuristic Earth that has evolved, we’re told, to kill humans, though frankly, it didn’t look all that dangerous to me. Sure, giant animals and such are a pain, but this Earth isn’t all that different from the last time I went camping, and the characters here have way better reception than I ever did.
The Smiths (Will and Jaden) star as a father and son duo (oh, stretch those acting muscles, Smiths!) on a little male bonding excursion after Space Ranger Cypher Raige’s (Smith Sr.) wife urges him to take son Kitai (Smith Jr.) along on his latest training mission. Kitai, you see, has the skills to be a famous Space Ranger just like pops, but unfortunately the young man is oftentimes consumed by crippling fear, something that goes back to his childhood when he saw his sister (“X-Men: First Class'” Zoe Kravitz) get eaten by an alien beastie. Yeah, that’ll do it every time. No bonus points if you guessed that eventually Kitai will have to confront his fears in order to save the day.
Since this wouldn’t be much of a movie if the trip went according to plan, their ship ends up in an asteroid field and crashes — right back on Earth. Everyone is dead except for the Raige men, but Cypher’s legs are busted and it’s up to Kitai to locate a missing beacon so they can send for help. There are problems with this: as mentioned, the kid tends to suffer from crippling fear at the most inopportune time, and oh yeah, there’s an alien monster (like the one that ate Kitai’s sister) on the loose, having been sprung when the ship went down. Fortunately for Kitai, he has a kick-ass bodysuit and dad is there to (mostly) talk him through his 100-meter trek to locate that missing beacon. He’ll need both because there are dangerous creatures like pissed off baboons, huge cats, and giant eagles in his way. Not to mention river leeches. Ugh. Those are just the worst, aren’t they?
This means most of “After Earth” is spent with Jaden Smith running around a forest battling packs of animals with a pretty snazzy battle staff, while Will Smith sits in the wreckage of the ship looking pained and dispensing sage advices like, “Do as I say or else!” Or things along those lines. And because this is the future, everyone has a very strange accent that comes and goes, and reminds me of Shyamalan’s insistence on the pronunciation of the lead character’s name in “The Last Airbender”. It’s an artifice that is not very necessary here, and is more distracting than anything useful. The film also never really explains just what is it that Smith’s Space Rangers are fighting, as we only see a brief flashback to a battle and not much else. He sure seems to deployed an awful lot, though.
The film’s big idea is that fear is something that can be conquered. Smith Sr. plays Cypher as a legendary Special Ops soldier, one devoid of fear and, in some ways, human emotions. He’s such a badass, that when he goes into fighting mode, it’s called “ghosting”. Which comes in mighty handy when the aliens they’re fighting are constantly tossing monstrous beasties that hunt by smelling the fear of their victims. Really, that’s it. These things apparently can’t even “see” if you’re not giving off fear pheromones. Which makes them kind of shitty hunters, but who am I to judge an advanced alien species. Needless to say, fear-filled Kitai’s got his hands full, especially with dad stuck on the ship doing field surgery on himself. Ouch.
“After Earth” is Jaden Smith’s second movie with dad Will (the two co-starred in 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness”) and his first movie since 2010’s breakthrough hit “The Karate Kid”. For the most part the young buck carries the film pretty well, alternating between scared out of his mind kid and resourceful teenager. Fans of Smith Sr. expecting the alien punching smartass from the “Men in Black” movies or “Independence Day” will be very disappointed. Smith is all business here, and I don’t think his character cracks a smile once. “After Earth” is a pretty simple and straightforward wilderness survival thriller that just happens to be set in the future. At just a shade over 90 minutes, it doesn’t drag things out, and Smith Jr. looks like he has what it takes to take over dad’s action movie career in a few years. He should start working on those one-liners now.
M. Night Shyamalan (director) / Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay), Will Smith (story)
CAST: Jaden Smith … Kitai Raige
Will Smith … Cypher Raige
Sophie Okonedo … Faia Raige
Zoë Kravitz … Senshi Raige
Glenn Morshower … Commander Velan