It’s just possible that After Earth isn’t the film you’ve been led to expect. By focusing on the action and adventure angle of M Night Shyamalan’s latest opus, After Earth’s trailers – wittingly or not – hinted at a kitsch sci-fi fantasy along the lines of Avatar, perhaps mixed with the outward-bound adventuring of The Hunger Games.
Instead, After Earth is a low-key sci-fi drama with only occasional flashes of action. What an attention-deprived summer crowd will make of it is anyone’s guess, but for audiences looking for an alternative to the season’s more hectic fare, Shyamalan’s film is an effective piece of counter-programming.
Set a millennium after an ecological catastrophe has forced humanity to abandon its home, After Earth opens on the distant planet Alpha Prime. Although Prime’s atmosphere is hospitable, its natives are not, and in order to repel its human visitors, the residents have created a breed of genetically-engineered monsters called Ursas. Hulking and ferocious, the Ursas’ ability to track humans by sensing their fear has but one drawback: if you can control your fear, you’re invisible to them.
With a lean duration of under 100 minutes, Shyamalan’s forced to do an awful lot of storytelling, and After Earth’s 1000 year history is related in a rushed and disjointed opening credits sequence which looks for all the world like a Syfy TV pilot.
For a couple of minutes, the iffy CG of Shyamalan’s disappointing Last Airbender or Lady In The Water spring to mind. Will Smith is oddly stiff as Cypher Raige, a war hero and humourless, authoritarian father to 14-year-old Kitai (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden). Jaden, in turn, seems awkward and a little too young to play a boy on the cusp of adulthood.
But once the opening minutes are out of the way, something clicks into gear. While father and son are flying between planets, their ship is seriously damaged, and forced to crash land on an Earth that has long since erased humanity’s last footprint. Savage creatures and deadly plants lie in wait; even the air is poisonous to breathe.
It’s here that the Smiths’ performances begin to make sense. Kitai is desperate to become a soldier like his father, but his age and his trauma-filled past prevent him. Cypher, meanwhile, has become so good at masking his emotions that he can no longer function as a warm, loving father. With Cypher injured from the crash, Kitai must trek across 60-or-so miles of hostile jungle to locate the distress beacon which will alert their rescuers. But between the boy and the beacon, all kinds of dangers and creatures lurk.
Although After Earth could easily have played out like a broad, larger-than-life survival adventure, Shyamalan’s more interested in the dynamic between his two leads than pyrotechnics, and the movie is more akin to Joe Carnahan’s quiet, bleakly poetic The Grey than Avatar. Large sections of the film play out like monologues, with the father and son kilometres apart and communicating via a futuristic version of Skype.
The way Shyamalan chooses to shoot these scenes is quite unusual, especially for a modern science fiction film. With long takes and an intimate, steady camera, he gives us time to study the characters’ faces. Kitai’s shining, fearful eyes are contrasted with those of Cypher’s, which are clouded and implacable.
Although Gary Whitta and Shyamalan’s screenplay is perfectly serviceable – and infinitely better than the director’s previous two films – it’s also quite minimal. Much of the film’s told through the faces of its contrasting leads. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky has worked with David Cronenberg regularly in the past, and he appears to have brought with him some of the Canadian director’s use of contemplative character study.
Shyamalan’s emphasis on character adds impact to his slight tale. The crashing ship becomes all the more effective because of the drama behind it; the true tragedy of the situation isn’t that Cypher and Kitai are facing almost certain death, but that even in this dire situation, the father doesn’t know how to offer comfort to his frightened son.
It’s unusual to see Will Smith in this kind of taciturn role, but he performs it admirably; the message of the film, perhaps, is not so much that we shouldn’t be dominated by fear, but that hardening ourselves can make us something less than human.
After Earth’s production design is as bold and economical as its direction. Offering a tactile alternative to the post iPad futures we’ve seen in recent genre stuff like Prometheus or Oblivion, After Earth’s vision of the future feels truly strange and exotic. The interiors of ships are a bohemian amalgam of rope and bone, while battle suits shift colour like chameleons.
The film’s primary threat, the Ursa, is a fearsome beast, too, and Shyamalan is wise to imply rather than show its presence for much of the film. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, Cypher can only watch helplessly as his son stumbles across the planet. The creature’s out there somewhere, waiting to pounce.
A somewhat trite central message is leavened by an unsentimental, hard edge. It’s not a particularly gory or violent film, but neither is it toe-curlingly mawkish. Only a predictable last act takes some of the sheen off the otherwise tense and absorbing story.
With a leading cast of just two actors, After Earth is a brave, unusual film for all concerned. If I could compare After Earth to anything in sci-fi, it feels a bit like a Ray Bradbury short story; strip away the millennia of back story, and you’re left with a simple tale about an estranged father and son, trapped in a lonely alien void.
Best of all, After Earth sees Shyamalan on a more certain footing after critically mauled films like The Happening, Lady In The Water and The Last Airbender. Although far from perfect, After Earth is still an absorbing, subtly engaging sci-fi movie.
After Earth is out on the 7th June in the UK.
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