Director M. Night Shyamalan has had an interesting career, to say the least. After the phenomenal success of “The Sixth Sense” in 1999 and “Signs” in 2002, it seemed that Shyamalan was on his way to a thriving career in the film industry. Unfortunately, his next four films, most recently 2010’s “The Last Airbender,” fell quite short of lofty expectations. Once he announced his most recent project, “After Earth,” critics wondered if Shyamalan could redeem himself and reach the high potential set by his earlier productions.
Unfortunately, he did not, instead digging himself into a deeper hole of disappointment. What may have seemed like a dramatic tale of peril on paper is in fact a farce on screen to viewers trying to understand both the plot and the point. Fear may not be real, as the movie suggests, but this film’s failure sure is.
A few hundred years into the future, mankind has left Earth and now dwells on the planet Nova Prime under the protection of rangers who fight off alien threats. The most respected of them, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), has mastered the art of “ghosting,” an ability to rid himself of fear and become invisible to the aliens that can, quite literally, smell fear. He hasn’t, however, mastered the art of compassion toward his only son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), who wants to be as fearless as his dad.
A planned father-son bonding mission through space goes off course when an asteroid storm causes their ship to crash land on Earth, which is now an uninhabitable jungle of vicious animals. No one, save for the miraculously uscathed Kitai and Cypher, who has broken both of his legs. To get back home, Kitai must find the emergency beacon that broke off of their ship.
At this point, the film becomes ridiculously terrible. The father-son relationship that serves as its emotional center is flawed from the beginning. Cypher shows little emotion and is unusually strict towards Kitai, and perhaps for good reason, because Kitai is almost comically stupid. He constantly ignores his father’s advice, throwing rocks at giant man-eating baboons while shouting, “Leave me alone!” as if that would somehow make them retreat.
His incomprehensible stupidity is not the only shortcoming in Shyamalan’s and Gary Whitta’s script, which tries to tie in a subplot about Cypher’s other child, Faia (Sophie Okonedo), who was killed by the vicious alien, Ursa. Her death haunts Cypher and Kitai in scattered dreams and flashbacks. This poorly handled attempt at explaining the family’s tension serves only to distract from the main plot.
An otherwise dreadful adventure film can often redeem itself with suspenseful action sequences, but “Earth” once again falls flat. Even its climactic battle brings no excitement to a script that suffers from a fatal flaw: monotony. The central characters simply aren’t developed enough for an audience to care about them, and the dramatic payoff just isn’t there.
Although “After Earth 2” is already in development, Shyamalan may want to think twice about subjecting the public to yet another in what has become a long line of flops.
Stars: * out of five