Perhaps it’s expected that Will Smith’s latest project would set its poignant father/son story against a futuristic vision of Earth ravaged by alien invaders. It’s also unfortunate, as the numerous stale sci-fi tropes that permeate the picture hamper much of the compelling pathos that marks its most appealing moments. The adventure aspect is fervent, though predictable, and cushions the son’s rather abrupt emotional transformation by flashing constant peril and an abundance of computer-generated creatures onscreen. It’s an effective tactic, but the superior path would have been to simply forego the trivial trials and focus on the more important journey of character. That said, the film’s potent scenes of lachrymosity make the voyage worthwhile, at least until the unimaginative monster shows up.
Racked with guilt over his inability to stop his sister’s death at the hands of a vicious alien Ursa, young Kitai (Jaden Smith) desperately attempts to follow in the footsteps of his father, the legendary general Cypher Raige (Will Smith). Hoping for a chance to impress his stern patriarch, Kitai gladly accompanies him on the Hesper, a freighter headed to a military training facility. But when an unexpected asteroid field causes their ship to crash land, father and son find themselves stranded alone on an extremely dangerous Class 1 quarantined planet – Earth. Now, with Cypher seriously injured and time and oxygen rapidly running out, Kitai must trek across miles of treacherous terrain to reach a distress beacon before the Hesper’s escaped cargo – a bloodthirsty Ursa – locates him first.
Promotions and advertisements have wisely kept writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s name from the spotlight; in recent years, his projects have become mercilessly mocked for expectedly containing twist endings and preposterous horror movie clichés. So it’s particularly lucky that an actor as accomplished as Will Smith would create the story and produce the film, paired with the likes of the easily derided auteur of such platitudinous works as “The Happening” and “The Village.” It wouldn’t be amiss to say the resulting “After Earth” is Shyamalan’s best film in years, although that certainly wouldn’t be a difficult feat.
Sporting a United Ranger Corps and a world overrun with oversized killer critters like something out of “Starship Troopers,” with a design that crosses “Cloverfield” and “Super 8,” combating the elements like the survivalist tactics of “The Hunger Games,” and a flagrant militaristic upbringing causing emotion to battle restraint, respect to be valued over love, and obedience to rival intuition (like something out of “Soldier”), this new adventure struggles to create an original visual and thematic style. The science-fiction components are ultimately just a backdrop to the occasionally moving father/son dynamic, made more impactful through the conscientious use of flashbacks, though the desired collision of Cypher’s unveiled affection and Kitai’s cognizance of composure never quite comes to fruition. In the end, the actions of the characters are far cleverer than the imagery or dialogue (peppered with nouns like “stuff” and “thing,” which seem blatantly out of place in a futuristic setting), leaving the moments when words remain primarily retained to stand out as the most powerful.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)