All sentiments aside about the film’s director, After Earth exists as an elegant and pensive examination of the power of human emotion. While it fails to elicit the proper excitement and suspense often required of its chosen genre, the poignant tale of a young boy transforming into his own hero is a unique and thoughtful statement on one’s ability to surpass insurmountable obstacles.
Our story begins with the revelation that Cadet Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) will not be accepted as a Ranger in the youth military program on the future human settlement of Nova Prime. Kitai is disappointed because his father will be disappointed, and Kitai needs to impress his father above all things. Kitai yearns for his father’s respect for reasons that are both understandable and sympathetic. His father — Captain Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is a legend, the first to develop a method of defeating humanity’s last remaining enemies — the Ursa.
Now is a good time to recap. When Earth fell into disarray as it tends to do in many post-apocalyptic sci-fi tales, a new settlement was established on a planet known as Nova Prime. But even post-apocalyptic humans can’t catch a break, and before long find themselves under attack from vicious predators known as Ursas. Ursas are creatures who cannot see humans, but can sense the pheromones released under stress. In other words, they can smell fear.
In an almost sociopathic display of control, Cypher willfully turns off his ability to fear when faced with a potential attack and as a result is able to easily slay the Ursa. The process is called “Ghosting” and it earns Cypher great respect as a military leader. We wonder if this same ability to not feel fear extends to other areas in his life, such as his ability to feel love or compassion. The film speculates but ultimately does not take a side.
At the urging of his wife, Cypher invites Kitai to accompany him on a training mission, but things go wrong when the ship crash lands on Earth. What remains of Earth has become a hostile environment in which all living things have “evolved to kill humans.” With the rest of the crew dead and Cypher gravely injured, it is up to Kitai to save them. His father tasks him with the job of retrieving a transmission beacon from the tail end of the ship, a 60mile hike through treacherous terrain.
The set up is simple but one we can allow in favor of the larger more potent story at hand — the mutable bond of a father and son when their roles are reversed. Kitai deals with his demons while we can only hope that Cypher takes the necessary time to reflect and get in touch with his own feelings (If they exist. I’m still not entirely convinced that they do).
However the story of bond between father and son is tough to sustain for so long and we begin to feel that the added plot element of “Ghosting” serves only to add meat to the bones of a meager tale. What should have been a suspenseful action plot element in the conflict between instinct and will (consider Pitch Black or Alien) is pushed to the side in favor of a story that never fully rises to the occasion.
Like our human characters, After Earth feels stranded between two worlds — that of an action, sci-fi thriller and that of a pensive treatise on the psychology of human nature. Being a huge fan of speculative fiction myself, I feel that in the proper arena, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale can be the perfect setting for an exploration of the validity of fear and over coming instinct. But like many things M. Night Shyamalan touches these days, After Earth becomes weighed down by the sheer weight of its undertaking, eager for us to hear every dead pan word and ogle over every sweeping landscape. As if falling prey to its own Ursa, After Earth flounders in the face of its own impending greatness, settling only instead to be an enjoyable film when it could have been a great one.