Silver Screen: After Earth *
The new sci-fi adventure flick After Earth is cowritten and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a fact that is unmentioned in the movie's promotional materials. After the triple flop of Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, that's no real surprise, and probably a good marketing strategy. It's also honest, if inadvertently so- After Earth bears little resemblance to Shyamalan's work, for better or worse, and only in a scene or two does it evince any distinctive style.
After Earth instead seems to stem most directly from the mind of costar Will Smith as a vehicle for his son/spinoff Jaden. Smith produced the movie along with his wife Jada and her brother Caleeb Pinkett. As a piece of science fiction it's both overly complex and vague, with an entire alien war implied offscreen just to set up what turns out to be a pretty simple, straightforward adventure/survival story. Everything about it, from the conflicts to the characters to the hastily imagined version of an uninhabited planet, feels inorganic, reverse-engineered to suit a story that exists solely for the sake of existing, because Jaden had to be in something. It's not so much terrible as just devoid.
The plot of the movie is simple: A father and son are the only survivors of a crash-landing on an abandoned planet, and with his injured father's guidance the son must journey to retrieve a distress beacon that will bring their rescue. There's a novel-length amount of exposition to set this up, however. Humans abandoned pollution-contaminated Earth decades ago for new planet, and then that new planet was subsequently attacked by aliens who created biological weapons in the form of big scary monsters called Ursas to dispatch humanity.
The senior Smith stars as Cypher Raige (let that sink in for a minute), a steely general who discovered how to defeat the Ursas when he learned they could only sense fear. By “ghosting,” or ceasing to feel fear, he blinds the creatures, then defeats them. It helped humans win the war, but it didn't save his daughter (Zoë Kravitz), who died at the claws of an Ursa while saving her fear-stricken little brother Kitai (Jaden).
When Kitai and Cypher crash-land, they find themselves back on their old home planet of Earth. It has grown increasingly inhospitable, with toxic air and deadly new flora and fauna. An escaped Ursa is also loose somewhere on the planet, making Kitai's search for the rescue beacon all the more harrowing.
Mostly it's a generic, computer-effects-heavy adventure, albeit kind of an awkward, silly one. The script (based on Smith's ideas, cowritten by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta) tries to artificially enhance the drama with arbitrary conflicts like requiring Kitai to use a dwindling number of “breathing fluid” packets to stay alive, or necessitating that every twelve hours he must find a “hot spot” that is not affected by Earth's rapid overnight freezing. These seem more like imperatives in a videogame than valid conflicts in a narrative, and they're also utterly nonsensical. Why didn't Kitai just take a couple extra of his father's breathing-fluid packets? If the planet totally freezes over every night, how is it a verdant jungle filled with green grasses and deciduous trees?
The whys and wherefores of the movie's stranger convolutions, like the Ursas and the alien invaders, can likely be attributed to Scientology dogma, a religion with which Smith is obliquely affiliated. The notion that negative emotions are like diseases that must be eliminated is both a major tenet of Scientology and exactly the way Cypher (Cypher Raige, that is) defeats the alien invaders- which would make him essentially Scientology's superman. Kitai's “life suit,” through which Cypher monitors his vital signs and guides him, bears a strong resemblance to the equipment and procedures used in Scientology's “auditing” process. And why is Kitai fighting a climactic battle on top of an erupting volcano? For that answer, check out the cover to Dianetics.
Hidden agendas, from nepotism to religious subtext, are about the only way to explain a movie so simultaneously expensive-looking, unfocused, and inert. There is still no plausible explanation, however, for the name Cypher Raige.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.