DVD Release Date: October 4, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: May 31, 2013
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images
Genre: Action
Run Time: 100 min. 
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower

Science-fiction fans are having quite an early summer. First up was the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, which took some of the more interesting themes from director Duncan Jones’ little-seen but excellent Moon and packaged them, with mixed results, in a high-budget, moody thriller. Then came the high-gloss Star Trek Into Darkness, where sci-fi themes and ideas played second fiddle to Spock, Kirk and a strong villain. After a slightly disappointing opening weekend at the box office, Into Darkness held well in its second week—a sign that word of mouth on the film is helping its financial performance.

We’re still not into June, but the summer movie season has given us another sci-fi epic—After Earth, featuring one of the world’s biggest box-office stars, Will Smith, and his son Jaden Smith, who earlier acted with his dad in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). After Earth is much closer in spirit—and in its measured pacing—to Oblivion than it is to this summer’s Star Trek entry, and it succeeds on its own terms more often than either of those two films. Most promising of all, After Earth marks a rebound for director M. Night Shyamalan, whose previous film, The Last Airbender, was such an atrocity that not even his longtime defenders (this critic included) could go to bat for the filmmaker.

Co-written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), and based on a story by Smith, After Earth starts with a spaceship's crash landing on Earth—"Paradise before we destroyed it," in the words of the ship’s prime commander, Cypher Raige (Smith)— more than 1,000 years in the future. The narrative then backtracks three days to show us how the crew ended up on Earth’s surface.

Cypher, prime commander in the United Ranger Corps, longs to return to his home on Nova Prime, and to spend more time with his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda), and teenage son, Kitai. "I want my family back," Cypher declares, even as Kitai is not so sure he wants his dad back. The son, who has aspirations to be a Ranger, knows his father will be disappointed to learn Kitai’s Ranger trainer won’t promote him because he "falls apart in the field." By contrast, Cypher is an honored, admired hero of battle who has learned the art of "ghosting"—fighting without a trace of fear—while battling alien creatures and other foes.

At the suggestion of his wife, Cypher takes Kitai on a trip, but their bond is put to its greatest test after Cypher's ship takes heavy damage in an asteroid storm. The ship's crew heads for the nearest surface to land—Earth, a place that humans fled ages earlier and gave over to animals ready to kill any returning visitors. Complicating things is the escape from the ship of a multi-limbed alien beast called the Ursa.

From there the film picks up where it left off in the opening minutes. Only Cypher and Kitai survive the crash, but Cypher, his legs broken, must send Kitai to fetch a beacon that is with the rest of the wreckage, miles away, through inhospitable terrain requiring supplemental oxygen to overcome Earth’s toxic air. With the help of a tracking device that shows Cypher his son’s surroundings, Kitai sets out on the perilous mission, guided by his father.

If the dialogue in After Earth is lacking at some points, Shyamalan's camera work and direction keep the film moving. Even shots of an immobile, wounded Smith, are pleasing to watch, thanks to Shyamalan’s subtle pans and zooms—not to mention Smith's ease at conveying urgency and emotion through tone of voice, a hard stare and the certainty that comes from years of refining a disciplined, life-preserving attitude. Young Jaden shows the strains of a teen struggling to exhibit the values instilled in him by his dad, even as he struggles to put across such lines as, "I hear something. I think it’s water. A lot of it," without completely embarrassing himself.

Shyamalan’s direction here is subtle compared to some of his earlier projects and most bombastic summer cinematic fare. The filmmaker lets his actors carry the weight of the film, demonstrating again why the elder Smith is such a steady, compelling actor.

At its core, After Earth is a father-son story in which a young man is called upon to put into action the lessons his father has instilled in him over the years. It’s not complex, but it's largely satisfying, and it shows that Shyamalan still is capable of helming effective genre stories. The film is not, however, suitable for young children, and its pacing may test antsy teens accustomed to the slam-bang style of much of today’s entertainment. After Earth is far from perfect, but if it challenges viewers to slow down and think about what they’re watching, that should count a mark in the film’s favor.

CAUTIONS

  • Language/Profanity: Joke with sexual implications; “da-n”; “that sucked”;
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Self-injections of pain reliever; an antitoxin injection directly into the heart
  • Sex/Nudity: n/a
  • Violence/Crime: Monsters are killed; dead bodies dangle from a tree; a violent crash landing; dead body with a head wound; dead animals; a boy sees, in silhouette, his sister impaled and killed; an animal attack in a bird’s nest; a girl’s face suddenly appears disfigured
  • Religion/Morals: Assertion that fear is not real, but a choice; to fight without a trace of fear is referred to as “ghosting”

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: May 30, 2013