“Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” The tagline for After Earth hints at some deeper meaning, but no, things are much more literal than that. There’s a big scary-looking CGI alien monster here, but it cannot see, feel, or hear you – it can only smell your fear. As long as you aren’t afraid of it, it doesn’t even know you’re there.
The choice, in other words, seems easy. But early scenes depict sequences of Starship Troopers-like alien warfare, where squads of spacemen commandos are torn apart by the fear-sensing bugs. This begs a number of questions, including whether hand-to-hand combat is really the best way to battle this species (don’t they have robots? Or at least guns?), and the obvious: why fear what cannot harm you unless you fear it? It’s a logical conundrum.
But there in the middle of the carnage, casually strolling through the bloodshed like Zatoichi, is Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a legendary warrior who slays the beasts by “ghosting”, the process of rendering yourself invisible by not fearing the aliens. Gee, you think, they should all do that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, lest you think this $130 million blockbuster is about fighting aliens. No, that’s just a prologue, and after 30 minutes of setup, and an hour of Cypher’s son Kitai (Jaden Smith) travelling around Earth in search of a distress beacon, we no longer care if the alien threat materializes by the end.
But of course it does: and to survive the vicious alien creature, Kitai must learn to overcome his fear…by, you know, literally overcoming his fear, so the alien cannot see him. What a great metaphor!
Sigh. You might expect this to be some kind of fun sci-fi spectacle with real-life father and son team Will and Jaden blasting away alien creatures, but that isn’t the case. After Earth is one of the most simplistic and straightforward blockbusters you’ll ever see, which is even more surprising coming from director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). Establish themes, crash-land on Earth, fight for survival; with one of the director’s formerly-anticipated twists, this might have made a nice 30-minute Twilight Zone episode.
After Earth, IMDb tells me, began its life as an idea about a father-son camping trip gone awry. I can see it: adventurous father takes spoiled city kid deep into the wilderness, accident leaves father immobilized, kid must learn to fend for himself in order to save both of them. It may not be original, but that’s gold, with themes and situations most audience members can relate to.
Transplant that story a thousand years into the future, with CGI aliens, distant characterizations, and ill-defined technology (while Earth is filled with animal and plant life, Kitai needs 12-hour oxygen ‘discs’ in order to breathe), and you’ve got a mess that the audience cannot possibly interact with. This is a survival movie in which we struggle to comprehend the survival tactics at almost every step of the way.
That doesn’t make for an engaging feature. In fact, After Earth is a wearying, frequently interminable experience that seems to move slower and slower as it drags on to its inevitable conclusion. Despite a director who specializes in sequences of suspense, and uncredited rewrites by Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) and Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), this thing is torture to sit through.
Not that I hated it. After Earth is never offensively bad, and in fact it’s a good deal better than two other would-be sci-fi/fantasy franchises that failed to launch this year, Beautiful Creatures and The Host; I was almost surprised given the wretched reviews the film has received. No, the emotion I felt most here was pity: there’s a lot of talent and money up there on the screen, and even some neat ideas (I especially liked the organic-feeling set design). But it’s all for naught.