Sci-fi family bonding on the ruined Earth
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
If all this summer's big-budget movies have anything in common, it's their similar willful disregard for plot and physics and reason and rationality. Go and see almost anything with a price tag in the hundred-million-plus range ("Iron Man 3," "Oblivion," "Fast & Furious 6," "Star Trek Into Darkness"), and it's certain you'll have your intelligence insulted; the real question you have to ask yourself is how exactly you want that to happen. Will you reject resurrecting blood but embrace a runway in Spain that clearly must be the length of Spain itself? I thought about this during "After Earth," a M. Night Shyamalan film where Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith play a father and son who crashland on Earth in a far-flung future 1,000 years after we had abandoned our ruined homeworld. "After Earth" is far from perfect, but it is gorgeously shot, is specific in its storytellling procedures and predecessors, and drapes survival sci-fi with dad-and-son drama. It's the cinematic equivalent of a Young Adult sci-fi novel, and it'll probably get ripped to shreds. It shouldn't.
The script for "After Earth" was co-written by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan from a story by Smith, who was himself inspired by the real-life tale of a car wreck where a father had to send his son for help when he was immobilized in the wreck. (As noted by MSN Movies' William Goss, you kinda wish we had gotten that smaller, less expensive film instead of all this CGI far-future hugger-mugger, but.) Crashed on Earth, general and war hero Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has to dispatch his son Kitai (Jaden) to travel to the tail section of their broken ship 100 kilometers away to pick up the distress beacon they need to call for help. And they need to call for help; Cypher's leg is severely broken, with a cut artery bleeding out, and all the field surgery in the world won't prevent that, just delay it. Plus there's plenty of family issues to get worked out, too.
The rest of the film has a plot with stop-and-start points built in; Kitai has to get to a different geothermal pool every night so as to not perish in Earth's freezing nights, but he also has a limited number of the inhalers that let him breathe Earth's now-different atmosphere. He's concerned about Earth's local wildlife, but the crash also loosed the genetically-engineered alien killing machine (called an "Ursa,") which was in the cargo hold. (Ursas have no sight; they detect humans through smelling their fear-altered biochemistry, so part of Cypher Raighe's training is literally conditioning himself to be fearless and, thus, imperceptible.) Armed with a high-tech smartsuit, a communications link to his stern father and his dad's morphing smartblade "Cutlass" as a weapon, Kitai goes forth ...
With lots of Jack London-style wilderness survival, a little Dr. Phil-style family counselling, and a lot of the kind of semi-military sci-fi for young men that used to be written by Robert A. Heinlein (or, more bluntly, by L. Ron Hubbard before he founded Scientology), "After Earth" is nicely-pitched for an audience of teen and tween boys and their dads. It's a B-movie with A-level technical work and an A-plus budget used to bring a C-minus script to life. There's a lot of talk about 'clearing your mind' and an ominous volcano like the one that used to be on the cover of "Dianetics," leading some to suggest, with groans and eye-rolls, that Smith's Scientologist beliefs are part and parcel of the film. But there's religious symbolism in many sci-fi stories (paging Superman ...) and both philosophically and in the eyes of the IRS, Scientology is as worthy of respect as any other religion.
Will Smith is fine -- stiff and full of gravitas, his voice pitched at a Poitier-or-lower level -- and if Jaden isn't quite capable of carrying some of the film's more emotive moments, that says more about the script than that young man's talents. Shyamalan's direction here is below films such as "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," but above films such as "The Last Airbender" and "The Lady in the Water," and as such works -- this is an interior story, although it's one with expensive exteriors. "After Earth" is a perfectly good film, and in the summer's cavalcade of scripts as slipshod as they are costly, I'll take its excellent execution and good intentions as a well-made piece of adventure over many of 2013's would-be blockbusters with bigger budgets, bigger stars and bigger mistakes.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.