In After Earth, a distant father (Will Smith) takes a trip with his estranged son (Jaden Smith) at the urging of his wife (Sophie Okonedo). It’ll be good for them, she thinks. Too bad their transport crashes, leaving them stranded in the wilderness. Too badly hurt to assist in finding help, the father sends his son on the journey, traversing deadly terrain while using technology to remain in contact. This is no ordinary story of a camping trip gone wrong, although that simple emotional core is certainly what the film’s about. These characters are humans a thousand years removed from our time, long after our planet has been abandoned and left for dead. Their spaceship has crash-landed on the quarantined Earth, the most dangerous place in the galaxy, a planet that has evolved to reject its long gone human inhabitants. It’s a thin drama of man versus nature loaded up with appealing sci-fi trappings.
Help for the stranded can only arrive by one of the Smiths activating a beacon flung from the wreckage and subsequently now located miles away. It’s a two-person film for the most part, with father and son Smith bonding while trapped apart by necessity, stuck together on a digital tether. The elder Smith plays not just an expert, but the best member of a futuristic army corps knows as Rangers. He knows all about the tricks of survival, including avoiding nasty, blind alien beasts that can only track humans by smelling their fear. As if this metaphor weren’t subtle enough, one of these beasts is tracking the younger Smith as he makes his way up hillsides, down steep cliffs, avoiding angry monkeys, climbing wildcats, and pterodactyl-sized birds of prey. You see, he must literally learn to control his fear if father and son are to survive. He’s hunted by the metaphor of maturity he must physically overpower to grow up and save the day.
The story of a father teaching his son the skills that make him the best at what he does takes on a subtext worth noting when it’s a film starring one of the world’s best movie stars and his relatively inexperienced actor son. (That Will Smith receives a story credit here only further underlines this reading.) Will Smith is a charismatic performer, but here drops his charm into static, stoic, minimalist reserve. It’s a measure of his talent that he’s sometimes compelling and often affecting despite holding so much back. Jaden, on the other hand, has much less of a natural screen presence and when he drops down into the same spare acting style to match his father’s acting choices he simply drops emotionally out of the film entirely. He disappears into the spectacle as nothing more than a lethargic action figure going through the motions in what should be a grand boy’s adventure, tromping through flora and fauna, barely staying alive at every turn, but is in reality thinner and simpler than even that would be.
What keeps the film interesting despite its rather thin plotting and a performance that’s featured in nearly every shot so completely underwhelming is the direction by M. Night Shyamalan. Even when, in recent films like his The Last Airbender, his storytelling arguably creeps towards self-serious silliness (though I’d argue that less vociferously than his detractors), he has an incredible eye. Here, he creates an uncommon stillness and patience in this Hollywood spectacle’s visual style.Working with Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography, this is a film that drinks in natural beauty of its sweeping landscapes. Even when the action, such as it is, begins, there is maintained a refreshing sense of steadiness. In the very best scenes here, as in his very best films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), Shyamalan builds suspense in simple sequences through nothing more than blocking and crisply edited moments of quiet dread. It’s in his style that the film manages to become something more than its spare, schmaltzy plotting might suggest.
Much of the film plays out in dialogue-free sequences of long shots following the Smiths’ progress. The first scene post-crash finds the younger Smith scrambling through the wreckage in a long take that finds the camera placed behind an emergency flap that’s rhythmically covering the corridor. As we watch the young man assess the situation, the frame is completely covered by the moving spaceship part at regular intervals. It’s the kind of choice that a less visually interesting spectacle would not think to make. As the film progresses through somewhat convincing creature effects and episodic encounters with nature dangers both recognizable and pure sci-fi, the camera remains steady, quiet and interesting. There’s uncommon beauty in some of the film’s passages, especially as consequences are at their most dire and a light dusting of something approaching Herzogian jungle madness descends upon the characters. Still, Shyamalan’s decisions make the film interesting without making it good. It’s the kind of stuff that could potentially elevate good to great, and here brings disposable to notable.