When “After Earth” hit theaters, most critics savaged it, a phenomenon that left me wondering if the reviews had been written before anyone had seen the film. The project did, after all, arrive with baggage.
Prior to “After Earth,” co-writer and director M. Night Shyamalan had been on a downward spiral that was seemingly out of control. After delivering a trio of great films – including “The Sixth Sense” – between 1999 and 2002, Shyamalan lost his footing and produced an unbroken string of bad movies. It is natural, I suppose, for one to expect that trend to continue. But it didn’t.
“After Earth” is not perfect, but it is Shyamalan’s best movie since 2002’s “Signs.” It is also a compelling science-fiction adventure that works as both a coming-of-age tale and a parable about father-son relationships.
The film is set in a distant future where human beings – having damaged Earth beyond repair – are living on a new world. During a routine military mission, a famous human general named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his 13-year-old boy, Kitai (Smith’s son, Jaden), crash land on the old human home world. Because Earth is unstable and populated by a host of deadly creatures, Kitai and Cypher are in remarkable danger.
As with most science-fiction efforts, “After Earth” has points that strain credibility. For instance, the characters possess only crude, close-range weapons despite being advanced enough for intergalactic travel. Focusing on this could ruin one’s appreciation for the picture. But beneath the surface-level problems lays a movie that is both action-packed and emotionally stirring.
Shyamalan does a fine job with pacing, and Will Smith is solid as a hardened military veteran who realizes that he and his son are facing long odds. Jaden Smith is less polished than his father, and he speaks in a poorly chosen (and never explained) accent. But this is a minor matter.
“After Earth” is a film that should have helped Shyamalan regain his stature in the film industry. Unfortunately, the early backlash was so nasty that it may have actually sped his fall.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include three featurettes on the making of the film and a never-before-seen version of the opening sequence.