For the first time in 20 years, M. Night Shyamalan directs a film he didnt write alone.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
He should try it more often.
The former-wunderkind-turned-punch-line delivers his best movie in a decade with After Earth, an efficient sci-fi tale of survival. It represents a career resurrection for the one-time Oscar nominee whose recent atrocities include The Last Airbender, The Happening and Lady in the Water.
All it took was a little willpower for Shyamalan to allow someone else to formulate the plot (rarely one of his strengths). It also took some Will power as in star Will Smith, who actually came up with the story.
Will teams with son Jaden for a father/son tale set a thousand years in the future, when a poisoned Earth has been abandoned for a planet called Nova Prime. The location proves problematic for humanity since it has already been claimed by a race of aliens. They retaliate by genetically breeding creatures trained to hunt using the pheromones people secrete when frightened.
Gen. Cypher Raige of the elite Ranger Corps is one of the few who have mastered the technique of ghosting. By excising all fear, he becomes invisible to these blind monstrosities (which combine all the yuckiest characteristics of insects and reptiles).
Fear is not real, he explains. Fear is a choice.
Cypher invites his cadet son Kitai on a space mission transporting one of these creatures to a ghosting training facility. But they crash land on Earth. Injured and running low on supplies, Cypher sends Kitai on a last-ditch mission to save them.
Every single decision you make will be life or death, he warns.
After Earth provides the former Fresh Prince with his least flashy role ever but in a good way. Since his character is essentially fearless, Will opts for a Zen-like performance, where his analytical nature takes over even when the personal stakes are grave.
Son Jaden, who proved he could carry a feature in The Karate Kid remake, earns more screen time than his father. His personality is all teen: unable and unwilling to hide emotion. Its a fine yin/yang interplay for the leads to work through.
Director Shyamalan gets the most out of the Smiths, sometimes simply staying out of their way. He also keeps things moving briskly with a story that eschews exposition in favor of flashback glimpses.
Sure, there are a few bits that Shyamalan haters will beat up on.
Some of the visual choices in After Earth look wonky, especially the design of the ship. It appears so impractical, like the crew is flying in the undercarriage of a soccer stadium. Plus, are shiny blades really the preferred method for combat in this military-driven future? There doesnt seem to be a firearm in sight. Theyve mastered beyond-light-speed travel but their armaments havent evolved past the 14th century.
And for some reason all the people speak with a patchy off-world accent. Its a distracting mix of R-free New Englanders and Madonna pretending shes British.
Yet the structure of the movie is perfectly sound, from the quest to the emotional father/son core. Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) gets credited for the initial script, but Stephen Gagan (Traffic) and Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty) reportedly contributed significantly.
They introduce all kinds of indigenous dangers and ticking-clock elements to challenge the survivors. Theres the additional looming threat of the escaped extraterrestrial that will inevitably start hunting the overmatched Kitai.
This harrowing adventure borrows from movies such as Alien and Predator, and especially the original Star Trek TV episode titled Arena. But in a summer filled with derivative sci-fi, After Earth comes up with enough fresh tricks to keep viewers pheromones happily secreting.