'After Earth:' It's night time
IN M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN'S last visit to planet Earth, "The Happening," Mother Nature was applying her own brand of Monistat to a chronic infection - us.
In "After Earth," the process is complete. We polluters have relocated to another planet, and after 1,000 years, the Earth has regenerated into a verdant jungle, but one that holds a grudge - all life, we're told, has evolved to kill humans, should they ever return.
Well, guess who's back, and without any bug spray?
Us again, in the form of Will and Jaden Smith. The elder is interstellar soldier Cypher Raige, a warrior legendary for his complete lack of fear.
The younger is Kitai Raige (dangerously close to a stripper name), a soldier-in-training whose lack of fear is decidedly not complete.
Dad is taking junior on an interstellar training run when their ship hits an asteroid and crash lands - how's this for rotten luck - on inhospitable Earth. The wounded, immobilized father sends his frightened son on a dangerous mission to recover a homing beacon, and it's on.
Kitai runs a gantlet of baboons, screeching raptors, poisonous leeches, environmental extremes. Here the movie is strongest and simplest - a briskly paced action adventure, with imaginative backgrounding by Shyamalan's digital artists (tropical ferns that curl and hide before an advancing frost).
The flora and fauna are enjoyably diverse, the movie's emotional range, not so much. As Kitai, Jaden's either terrified (his upturned eyebrows are the movie's best special effect) or angrily reproachful of his tough-love father.
Meanwhile, the famously charismatic Will Smith is straight-jacketed in a stern father role that imprisons and limits him as much as his characters' broken legs. Both actors are further handicapped by stiff dialogue and a bizarre accent regime.
Yet the movie has some good sci-fi ideas - the crash landing brings with it an alien beast, blind to everything but fear, and it's on the trail of the quaking Kitai, who must learn to quell his self-doubt in order to survive.
This scenario may be familiar to you - desperately ill father trying to instill courage in a vulnerable child whose fears take shape as a malevolent creature. By another name, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a movie with an amateur cast and crew that had the advantage of being perfectly done, and deeply moving - on a budget of about $1.25.
"After Earth" is the inverse - attractive stars, expensive production and design, but offering less emotional engagement.
Still, it's a bit of a bounce back for Shyamalan, who's reconnecting with what worked in "The Sixth Sense." Everyone remembers the twist, but its big payoff was emotional - the scene of a boy confessing his supernatural visions to his skeptical mother. This, again, was a child confronting his greatest fear-losing the only parent he had left.
"After Earth" has those same instincts. Good news, if you're looking for signs.