The film stars Will and Jaden Smith as Cypher and Kitai Raige. Cypher is a high-ranking general in a neo-military organization that Kitai has just failed to join because, despite book smarts, he collapses in the field. At their wife/mother’s (Sophie Okonedo) insistence, the emotionally distant duo go on vacation, but crash land on Earth, now a poisoned wreck of a planet. Cypher’s legs are broken, and to get rescue, Kitai must journey through 100 kilometers of wilderness and overcome his fear of active duty.
Complicating matters is the ship’s third survivor — an ursa, a blind, arachnoid behemoth that was genetically engineered by an alien race to kill humans. Ursas track their prey by pheromones produced in fear. The primary defense against them is to completely purge oneself of fear, a technique Cypher invented, but Kitai cannot master.
After Earth is a thematic triumph. Fear and guilt are thoroughly examined through the main characters’ experiences, and the simplistic directing and powerful performances allow the audience to sympathize completely. As a character examination, After Earth couldn’t aspire to be anything more.
The Smiths are fantastic, with Jaden turning in the most subtle performance of his career. The stilted, awkward aesthetic between son and distant father makes dialogue a non-option for expressing emotions, but at no point does Jaden have trouble expressing the posttraumatic anxiety that defines his character.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan validates the marketing tactic of not mentioning him ever by taking himself out of the film. His stylistic quirks are minimized, to the point that he doesn’t have a cameo or a twist ending.
The film isn’t perfect. It needs more ambition. Because Kitai and Cypher don’t communicate, their back story is primarily told through flashbacks, and more flashbacks would have been better.
I would have really liked to see Kitai collapsing in his field training. While the informed trait is supported by his difficulties in the main body of the movie, it would help to see how bad his panic attacks were in a controlled environment.
There’s also a bit of a bait-and-switch going on. While guilt takes a big role, the green aesop the commercials promised lacks bite, particularly because of the biggest monster not being from Earth at all. The film would have been better and cleaner had it abandoned Earth as a setting.
A lot of noise has been made about Scientology themes in the film, with its main message coming straight from L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings and its climactic setting, a volcano, being important to the religion. If an audience goes in expecting to see propaganda, confirmation bias could easily ruin the movie. It happens, but in this case, it’s really sad. After Earth is strong in all the ways it needs to be, and a few motifs to an alternative religion shouldn’t change that.
I have to wonder though — what happened to firearms?
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a staff writer for the NT Daily. He is going to be 21 forever, baby. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for. Be sure to come back next week for a review of The Purge.