I remember sitting the a crowded ballroom during the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con and listening to the panelists talk at length about the effort they put into the history of After Earth. They even went so far as describing a “bible” they created, so that they could put down any answers to various questions of who did what and why. Some 1,000 years into the future is when After Earth begins, where an elite military force known as the Rangers are the trailblazers after we left Earth. Ravaged, the planet was no longer inhabitable by our self-destructing human race so we fled and found a new planet to live on. Trouble was, that planet was already inhabited by a species that didn’t take kindly to us. That’s pretty much the information we get. Throughout. We learn a little bit more about Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and what “ghosting” means, but beyond that we learn very little about this new world.
As I watched, I kept thinking, “why create a bible for what can be contained in a paragraph or two?”. They also downplayed how much influence writer/director M. Night Shyamalan had on the project, and considering the loud boos that rained down when it was revealed to the audience at Comic-Con that he would be co-writing and directing this film, it seemed to be a smart play. However, the film simply can’t escape Shyamalan’s fall from grace. For a while, Shyamalan had a Midas touch of sorts. He had come from nowhere and given us The Sixth Sense and followed it with Signs. But audiences cried foul after The Village (a personal favorite of his films), and it snowballed from there.
With a story idea originally pitched by Will Smith to screenwriter Gary Whitta, a film was born. Yet, I can’t help but feel most of the enormous effort those panelists described were all for naught. The fruits of their labor have resulted in a film that is stilted, overly serious, and at times even boring. There’s also an obvious lack of other characters in the film. Here, we rely almost solely on young Jaden Smith, who has been a rising star in cinema. He plays Cypher’s son, Kitai, who dreams of becoming a Ranger like his father. When they crash land on Earth, Kitai gets that chance to prove his worth while his father is made immobile by his injuries and must rely on his son to save them both by sending out for help some 100 kilometers away.
Standing in Kitai’s way is a world that has evolved to kill humans. Though, how it evolved to kill us without us being there is just one of the many head-scratchers. A lot of the planet doesn’t even seem to have changed. There are some large tree-climbing cats, and dramatic changes in weather, but overall things seem pretty normal, just significantly less human-centric. Then there’s something called Ursa (still don’t know why it’s called that). This creature is what had been battling the colonists in the new planet we populated and it’s ferocious. Set loose, the thing is a looming bad omen on Kitai’s journey to retrieve the device that can save them. Naturally, we are given a big showdown as well.
There are moments of awe within After Earth. The buildings the colonists use on the new planet are stunning. What purpose they serve, I don’t know. There’s also some neat fabrics that Kitai wears which reacts to motion and attempts to camouflage the wearer. Even some of the technology, including a scroll-looking device that can extend into numerous blades, are fascinating. Yet, far too often, they are treated as background. That would be fine if the story it focused on instead was more compelling.
Unfortunately, when you insert the father-son dynamic we have in After Earth, and strangle the focus to just Kitai trying to prove himself to his father throughout, we are given a film that rarely has fun and instead becomes dire and bland. The rolling score and beautiful cinematography can only do so much. In the end, I can help but feel that if After Earth is the future, I’m glad I live in the present.