In the world of “After Earth,” humans are hunted from planet to planet by ravening insectoid monsters that can’t see or hear, but identify people through the pheromonal smell of their fear. The greatest human warriors master their fear through a technique called “ghosting,” and are able to slaughter these beasts, called Ursa, at will.
The idea that freedom from fear will make one invisible to enemies is more than a little over the top, but director M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t do allegory or metaphor or ambiguity, or anything but baseball-bat-to-the-head literality. It’s easy to hate, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for rolling their eyes at the overdone spiritual archetypes and psychologically charged flashbacks.
That said, I didn’t hate “After Earth.” Clocking in at a trim 100 minutes, it’s a fairly decent example of the man-on-a-mission thrill ride. It may not live up to its nine-figure budget, but it packs enough legitimately pulse-pounding action to make up for the failings of the story.
The action is set about 1,000 years after an ecological catastrophe forced the evacuation of Earth. Colonists have settled on a variety of inhabitable planets, but because of the threat of the Ursa, they are on constant military alert, with the warrior class forming the elite of society.
Will Smith plays Gen. Cypher Raige, an icy, distant military man on the verge of retirement. His son Kitai (played by Mr. Smith’s real-life son Jaden Smith, who gets top billing) is hoping to join the ranks of the supersoldiers called Rangers who are qualified to fight the Ursa. Young Kitai is a promising student but doesn’t quite have the stuff to qualify. His father, in an effort to bond with the son he hardly knows, offers to take him on a routine interplanetary trip that ends with father and son as the sole survivors of a crash landing on a world that just happens to be the now wild and dangerous planet Earth.
Cypher is gravely injured, and is forced to send Kitai on a dangerous trek to the outer edge of the crash site to recover a beacon to send a distress signal. Cypher directs him on a communications link. There are some silly elements to the quest that will probably be more at home in the inevitable video game tie-in. Kitai has to take special inhalers to counteract the poisons in the atmosphere, and has just enough to get through his mission. When a few get destroyed, he disobeys his father’s orders to abort the mission and finds a dramatically shorter route.
Because of the dramatic shift in nighttime temperature, Kitai has to locate a geothermal heat source to keep from freezing to death at night. (It’s not clear how the forests of the movie maintain their lush green look amid nightly freezes.) Also, the crashed ship contained a single Ursa in the cargo hold for training use — and it may or may not have survived impact and be hunting Kitai.
Jaden Smith isn’t quite believable as a cadet on the verge of manhood. The part of Kitai is demanding — the boy is haunted by a traumatic childhood memory (a plot point best left unspoiled) and somewhat introverted, but also capable of a bluff and a strong independent streak. Kitai’s journey drives the movie — while Cypher coaches from the sidelines.
On the other hand, Will Smith typically plays second banana to no one. In “After Earth,” his restraint is only achieved through immobilization. The casting seems like an act of misplaced modesty from the elder Smith, who also came up with the story and co-produced the movie. Yet despite these failings, and some special effects miscues, Kitai’s journey is absorbing and at times riveting, and should entertain its target audience of teen moviegoers.
TITLE: “After Earth”
RATING: PG-13 for violence, gore and occasional profanity
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS