For about a decade, every commercial for an M. Night Shyamalan movie heralded “an exciting new vision.” The director/writer (“The Sixth Sense,” “The Happening”) is noticeably absent from ads for “After Earth,” the latest film to reinforce that a name initially synonymous with clever twists now means ridiculously ill-advised stories and other weird miscalculations.
Less than two months after the already-derivative “Oblivion,” “After Earth” presents another futuristic, evacuated Earth, this time 1,000 years after humans destroyed the worldwide “paradise,” which is how a voiceover oversells the planet. Um, perhaps Earth rose to a paradise level before it was wiped out, but currently we all can think of spots that are very much not a paradise—and I’m not even talking about flea markets.
Why does a “class one quarantine” planet still look so green and welcoming? That’s a question Shyamalan and star Will Smith, who conceived the “After Earth” story and also hasn’t been reliable in a long time, can’t answer any better than they can identify the characters’ unfamiliar accents. They are not Australian, although they do pronounce ranger “ranguh,” as if they’re about to say, “Fostuh’s—Australian for bee-uh.”
Smith plays Cypher Raige—that’s really his name—a hero so detached from his teenage son Kitai (Smith’s son Jaden) that Cypher’s wife (Sophie Okonedo) actually says, during a largely unnecessary 20-minute prologue, “He does not need a commanding officer; he needs a father.” When the father and son’s vessel crashes on Earth, Cypher’s broken legs confine him to the ship while Kitai searches for a beacon that would save them both. Since apparently next-millennium spaceships don’t have GPS or something.
On this Earth, any human who accidentally winds up there needs to find hot spots during freezing cold nights and ingest breathing fluid from dispensers that look like the inhalers I use when I have a bad cough. I wouldn’t call that kind of place “uninhabitable,” just a poor vacation choice. Angry monkeys surround them in the jungle, which wouldn't exactly be a great situation in 2013 either.
Also, monsters called Ursa can smell fear, something I believe dogs and bees can do as well (according to “Jerry Maguire”). If someone lives without fear, they become invisible when battling Ursas (it’s called “ghosting”), which doesn’t help at all when fighting deadly CGI cats and birds.
The elder Smith (“I Am Legend,” “Independence Day”) frequently fends for himself in extreme circumstances on screen; here he’s just constantly shown in pain in between shots of Kitai walking and then fending off animal attacks. Kitai's intense parasite bite looks chillingly effective, as does the dynamic of Kitai attempting to simultaneously impress and help a parent unable to help himself.
Shyamalan’s less successful with cheap nods to “Moby Dick” and moments like when Cypher somehow blows out candles remotely and tells Kitai, “Recapture your power; this will be your creation.” Sorry, what?
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.