After Earth Review

poster from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

I like M. Night Shyamalan movies. I thought The Sixth Sense and The Village and Signs were good. But by the same token, he’s made a bunch of movies, like Unbreakable and The Happening that I was really unimpressed by. All the same, when I heard he was making a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie, I wanted to go, even if After Earth was easily confused with Oblivion at first blurb.

In the future, Earth is abandoned and dangerous. When a young boy and his father crash there, the boy must survive in Earth’s hostile environment long enough to summon help.

But where Oblivion was about conspiracies After Earth is pure survival. You get very little in the way of an explanation for why things are the way they are and we spend most of our time on a coming-of-age journey with the boy. I liked it for what it was, but if you’re expecting something more then you’ll be disappointed.

One of the things that threw me in the trailer was the notion of fear being a choice. Fear isn’t a choice, it’s a reaction to danger. It wasn’t until I saw the whole movie that the fear = choice thing started to make sense. It’s the future and humans are at war with aliens who created monsters called the Ursa to do their fighting for them. The Ursa are scary looking and sense humans by smelling their fear pheromones. Ergo to avoid getting killed by one you have to learn to ‘ghost’ or suppress your fear reaction.

Kitai and the Ursa from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

I’m not scared, I’m not scared… oh who am I kidding? RUN AWAY!!

Kitai (Jaden Smith) is a fourteen year old boy who is training to become a Ranger, which is sort of a cop who fights the Ursa. His problem is that he can’t control his fear and also that he’s kind of only doing it because he feels like he has something to prove to himself and to his dad Cypher (Will Smith) who is the most unstoppable badass Ranger there ever was (and also kind of a big dick to his son). Kitai’s mom Faia (Sophie Okonedo) suggests that Cypher and Kitai take some time to bond by going on a spaceship journey together.

Cypher and Faia from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

Um, honey? Can we maybe have less public humiliation of our son at the dinner table?

The ship Kitai and Cypher are on is carrying an Ursa to a training academy for Rangers so when the ship crashes on Earth, the thing gets loose. The rescue beacon is in the other part of the ship 100km away and Cypher can’t get it because his leg is broken, so Kitai has to go all that way alone and find the thing himself… without getting eaten by the approximately 4 million monsters lurking around in the jungle.

Cypher and Kitai from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

Um, I’m sorry, but you want me to do WHAT?

What follows is the story of Kitai trying to survive in a supremely hostile environment. He can’t breathe the air without medication, nighttime temperatures drop lower and faster than that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, and according to Cypher “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” However, if you’re looking for a reason WHY everything from weeds to eagles has evolved to kill humans (which isn’t even strictly true 100% of the time) or why the temperature drops so low at night, you can forget it, because they never talk about it. I can only assume the reason is: “because then things will be more dramatic for Kitai.”

Kitai runs through the forest from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

The plants! They’re touching me! Make them stop touching me!

In addition to survival, father son bonding is also a big part of After Earth. The problem is that Cypher is back at the ship and is passed out from pain and/or blood loss half the time while Kitai is out wandering around, so they have to do all their bonding over the radio or on video screens. It does work, but just barely, and probably only because Will and Jaden Smith already have such great father/son chemistry (due to them actually being father and son). I can’t help thinking the movie might have worked better if they were actually together during the adventure.

Cypher watches Kitai on the monitor from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

Goddammit Kitai, eat your vegetables or there’s no dessert for you!

One of the coolest things about After Earth is all the science fictioney stuff the art department came up with. Kitai’s survival suit changes color in response to threats, he’s got a weapon called a cutlass that’s basically a stick that has about 100 different configurations, and the insides of their ships are all plastic but designed in a way that looks almost organic. With all that technology, you’d think they’d have something to fix broken legs, but that wouldn’t be very dramatic I guess.

Cypher and his broken leg from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

They have a device that shows the gross insides of legs, but can’t fix them.

The other thing I liked about After Earth was that the main cast was black but none of the other character makes a big deal over the fact that they’re black. Nobody in the movie is racist against them (in fact, Cypher is their biggest badass) and nothing in the story relies on the color of their skin. The characters could have been cast white like they would have been in every other Hollywood movie, but they weren’t, which is a step in the right direction, I think.

Little Kitai and his sister from the Columbia Pictures film After Earth

Hang on, kid. I have to go get killed, but at least it’s not because I’m the token black character.

Anyway, I liked After Earth. It’s a great survival story with a cool science fictioney angle and it would be great for parents to see with their kids (though it might be a little too scary for younger kids, say under 10 or so). I could have done with more background on the world and more father son face time, but the fact that it’s missing doesn’t ruin the movie. Check it out.

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