M. Night Shyamalan has somehow gone from being one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood to one of the most reviled almost overnight. Whether he is oblivious to the criticisms he receives or he just chooses to ignore them, it has become a running joke over the years about how bad his films could actually get each time out the gate. Although his latest feature won’t silence the harsh voices of his critics, he at the very least proves that it isn’t all downhill from here. Read the full review after the break.
1000 years ago mankind was forced to abandon Earth and seek solace on a new homeworld called Nova Prime. Not too long after settling on this new world, humanity found itself under attack by an alien species known as the Ursa, a race of creatures that have an ability to track its prey by sensing their fear. To combat the Ursa, an elite force known as the Rangers were formed, who have honed the ability to control their fear, called Ghosting, and remain virtually invisible to the Ursa.
The man who first discovered this ability was Prime Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a legend and leader to all other Rangers. Coming up on his retirement, Cypher must now contend with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), whom himself has taken the tests to become a Ranger just like his father but lacks the discipline needed in the field to control his fear. In an attempt to reconnect with his estranged son, Cypher invites Kitai along for a Ghosting training exercise off-world. En route however, their ship takes severe damage and crash lands on Earth, a planet that has become increasingly hostile to humans over the centuries.
As the sole survivors of the crash, Kitai and his father, whom is severely injured, must find a way to signal for help. With their only hope lying within the tail section of their ship residing over 100 kilometers away, it is up to Kitai to save both his life and his father’s. While traversing Earth’s dangerous and rugged terrain poses its own difficulties, Kitai must also evade the Ursa that was being transporting for the training exercises along with them, but is now loose on the planet in search of him and his father.
Before we get started here, let’s drop a bombshell on you that apparently the film’s producers and studio didn’t want you to know…this film was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. That’s right, the once prolific and heralded “visionary” filmmaker, whose responsible for the undisputed classic The Sixth Sense, the arguably superior follow up film Unbreakable, the intriguing but ultimately disappointing Signs and a slew consistently disappointing failures such as The Village, The Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. What was once a promising career from a young filmmaker turned into a living nightmare.
Let the truth be known, the man responsible for all those films is also the man behind After Earth, the Smith family project constructed from the ground up to be a starring vehicle for Jaden Smith in yet another attempt to have him catch on with audiences. There are near infinite reasons to dislike this film before even laying eyes on it. The narcissism by the Smiths and their unending need to make their son a film star with trial by fire, Shyamalan’s own filmography which has created outright hatred towards the director and his infamous need to infuse each of his stories with a twist ending are just for starters.
The money men behind the financing of After Earth were wise to hide Shyamalan’s name from any of the marketing for the film and instead focus squarely on the Smith family name (Will and Jaden have done most of the press for the film on their own). For years now Shyamalan’s name has been box office poison, audible laughs and giggles could be heard in any theater that showed a preview for any film that proudly displayed his name on it. So it was a wise decision keeping his name as far away from the public eye as possible and let them find out the hard way, by waiting until the very end of the film to inform the audience (we don’t see him credited for anything until the end credits begin), that they have just watched a Shyamalan film.
It was wise because in an unexpected, but delightful turn of events, After Earth is the best film the director has made in nearly a decade. If his name had been plastered all over the posters and ads for the film, it is extremely likely that most would have written it off (and rightfully so given his history). But they would have missed out on a surprisingly fun little Sci-fi romp that may not evoke the promise we saw in the filmmaker all those years ago, but is at least a step back in the right direction towards his long awaited redemption and a fun movie adventure to boot.
Now, don’t take this as a hailing of After Earth as some sort of epic masterpiece that destroys all expectations. It is more of a smaller scale, personal story about a son and father working together to survive a hostile environment, than it is this sprawling adventure that the trailers have made it out to be. Although Will Smith is credited for the story, Shyamalan still needed to write it and the dialog is borderline laughable at some points, especially when combined with the strange accents all the actors are saddled with. It is also very likely to underwhelm those looking for a hard hitting action/adventure film since it is more of a coming of age story than anything else, just with some overly familiar Sci-fi trappings.
As a matter of fact, the film almost feels more geared to adolescent boys than to the many adults who are its target audience. Young Jaden Smith, who was last seen in the Karate Kid remake from a few years back, is the central focus of the narrative. His relationship with his father is the key to the film’s assorted themes about parenthood, family and of course, fear. Jaden has certainly come a long way since then and at least proves to be a likeable presence for the most part, leaving a mostly positive impression for an acting career that is just getting underway. His father’s relentless pursuit to put him in front of the camera aside, Jaden’s performance will likely surprise many of his detractors (it did for this reviewer anyway).
Despite plastering his face all over the ads for the film, Will Smith himself is almost a non-factor. He is in it throughout, but his impact is lessened due to an unfortunate side effect that comes at a price for nearly every Shyamalan production, emotionless acting. While it is explained away here with the advent of his character shedding his fear (and thus his emotions), it is still slightly saddening that an actor with the charismatic on screen presence of Smith is relegated to grimacing throughout the entire production and forcing a frown at nearly every turn. He can be a fun and energetic personality but none of that is here at all, perhaps in an attempt to not overshadow his son’s performance.
That slight nitpick does lead into the film’s strongest asset though, its use of fear as a story device. Instead of just being some miscellaneous tagline on the poster, the statement, “Danger is real. Fear is a choice” plays a large role in Kitai’s growth as a character and more importantly, with the alien threat that is hunting him down. In quite possibly the best scene in the entire film, and Will Smith’s lone moment to shine, he explains to his son the psychology behind fear and its effects on us. It is an eye opening moment and one that completely sells the idea of Ghosting which becomes the films central theme by the end.
While not entirely as revelatory as it might want to be, that monologue by Will Smith sets the stage for the entire film and pushes Kitai down a path that eventually (and predictably) will lead him to a moment of self discovery where he will learn to master his fear and become the Ranger he has always aspired to be. It is to everyones credit, Will, Jaden and yes, even Shyamalan, that this message is delivered without much hokeyness (although there are some awkward moments here and there).
After Earth had an uphill battle the moment it was announced who would be the creative forces behind it and it is nothing short of a miracle that the final product has turned out as well as it has. It is unfortunate that the film is targeted and tailored to a more younger crowd, but that doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy it as well.
As for that twist ending everyone is expecting? Instead of his usual narrative twist that makes you question everything that came before it, he makes you question your own expectations for the film with the biggest twist of his career thus far when he reveals at the very end with his directorial credit that M. Night Shyamalan, the man nobody believes has a good movie in him anymore, has in fact delivered a surprisingly solid and moderately entertaining film. What a twist!