3 out of 4 stars
In 1999, with the release of his third film ("The Sixth Sense"), writer/director M. Night Shyamalan received two Oscar nominations and achieved what every filmmaker dreams of but few realize. He asked for and was given final cut on all future projects -- a luxury less than a couple dozen of his peers have ever been granted. The film wowed (almost) everyone and it looked like the only thing that could hold him back was his own imagination.
Sadly, it was his imagination that interrupted his meteoric rise and brought Shyamalan crashing back down to Earth. With the follow-ups to "Sense" ("Unbreakable," "Signs"), Shyamalan went from wunderkind to one-trick pony. "Unbreakable," "Signs" and every effort since "Sense" contained a "gotcha" plot twist that showed up late in the movie and was designed to force the audience to reconsider everything they just saw. In no time flat, he was reduced to an industry joke and even worse, people stopped going to his movies.
Shyamalan hit rock bottom with "The Last Airbender," a 3-D martial arts fiasco that was mercilessly lambasted by the press and mostly ignored by U.S. audiences. Recognizing he needed a different approach and maybe some creative assistance, he teamed up with writer Gary Whitta ("The Book of Eli") and working with an original story idea by Will Smith, came up with the best movie he's made since "Sense." Best of all, there are no "gotcha" twists.
For a summer blockbuster-hopeful science-fiction movie, "After Earth" is a remarkably restrained affair. While it has its share of special effects (mostly in the beginning) and a fair amount of audio/visual bombast, it is an unlikely character-driven drama at its core and ultimately values content over style.
On the downside, it's yet another semi-downer with a post-apocalyptic theme and not all that far removed from the recent "Oblivion." After an opening that suggests it might be heading into unwanted "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" territory, "After Earth" settles down and starts looking like how "Planet of the Apes" or "Prometheus" might have turned out if made by Stanley Kubrick.
Smith stars as Cypher Raige, a high-ranking space general and slayer of many aliens who is about to retire. Before doing so he plans to go on one last mission and bring his son Kitai (Smith's son Jaden Smith) with him. An overachiever with not nearly as much talent as his father, Kitai has just been denied a promotion, and after some nudging from his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo), Cypher figures out he needs to do some paternal bonding and bolster his son's self-esteem.
Soon after heading out on the mission, the ship carrying Cypher, Kitai and their crew encounters a meteor shower and is forced to land on Earth, which has not supported human life for more than 1,000 years and is strictly forbidden territory. The landing doesn't go well -- especially for Cypher -- and Kitai is charged with traveling some 100 or so kilometers in order to fetch the device that will save them.
Now 44 years old (44?!), the elder Smith recognizes his days as an action star are numbered and wisely leaves virtually all of the heavy lifting and the hands over the majority of the screen time to Jaden. This is both good and bad. People going in expecting a Will Smith action flick get little of him, and it's not the type of action they're used to seeing in a Smith movie. Well more than half of the time he's immobile and close to comatose.
In possession of a ton of soul and bottomless ambition, Jaden Smith has a lot in common with Kitai. It's unlikely he'll ever be able to match his father's massive success, but to be fair, he's only 14 and does come from hearty stock. His acting chops are still in the developmental stage, and he often tries too hard. Carrying a movie this big at that age with his superstar dad alongside him is indeed a heavy cross to bear.
Although probably tempted, Shyamalan -- remembering the botched 3-D post-production that made "Airbender" a visual nightmare -- wisely shot "After Earth" in traditional 2-D and it looks utterly amazing. This is definitely a movie you'll want to see on the biggest screen possible. Unlike the other action flicks released so far this summer, "After Earth" realizes that more is not better, quiet is sometimes better than loud and it clocks in at "just" 100 minutes. It says what it has to and no more, and then takes its exit at just the right time. (Columbia)