If I’d remembered this was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, I probably would’ve stayed home. Instead, I watched the flailing director’s small-scale imagination do nothing to improve a threadbare idea from star Will Smith, while kind of actively fighting against everything that might’ve made the science fiction setting interesting.
The story credit goes to Smith, while the screenplay goes to the director and another writer. Movies take years to go from inception to realization, and my guess is that Smith jotted his idea onto a notecard about two days after seeing Avatar. (Or maybe the screenwriters tackled that post-it note plot after they saw Cameron’s visual opus.) Exotic alien planet with surprising foliage, vast vistas, flying with gigantic birds … it feels like Avatar fractionalized and recycled with too little budget or effects talent. (Also, my money says Smith came up with his character’s name: Cypher Raige. Why is he so angry?)
The plot: Kinda estranged father and son crash land on Earth ten centuries after we’ve abandoned it. Earth is a redwood forest with angry monkeys. The son has problems with bravery, the father has problems communicating emotion (to his child or to the audience). Son must go his own way, face massive odds and all-but-certain death to become a man. Then his father is free to love him, I guess.
The theme, as monotoned by the ever-serious Cypher Raige (if that was my name, I’d always be working hard not to crack a smile, too): “Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.” This theme is very powerful if you’re sitting through an introductory Scientology course or facing make-believe sci-fi monsters that can only find you if they literally smell the fear on you. In much of real life, it’s kinda useless.
(The film’s title is weird, too. “After Earth.” Yes, the story takes place centuries after humanity left the Earth, but that’s irrelevant. The quickly sketched back story that we left Earth because we ruined it has no thematic or plot bearing on this film. In fact, it could’ve taken place on any planet at all.)
The execution: The first part of the film (chronologically–we’ll ignore the unsuccessful flashback structure of the first half) takes place on whatever alien world humanity now inhabits, while occasionally going to other planets to fight modified Geiger aliens that were dropped on us by … other aliens, I think. Anyway, during these scenes, the camera work is incredibly static, the shots very theatrical and stagey. I assumed that this was to contrast with the action on Earth that would come later, but the direction there wasn’t much better. During the pre-Earth scenes, it’s also really clear that every actor is speaking in a faux accent that may be intended to remind us how different humanity is in this thousand-year future. Amusingly, no two actors quite have the same accent. Tiringly, they all keep talking in their funny ways.
On Earth, the film sends Smith’s son on an Important Mission, on which he will lose his father’s guidance and Face His Fears, kill the Geiger Alien, and finally Become a Man.
This is a story that may entertain younger viewers (but old enough to handle the action/violence) and the critically disinclined, but it’s almost devoid of charm. The often charming, giftedly comedic Smith is trying very hard not to be fun. He virtually never smiles or speaks in anything but that leaden monotone, which essentially means he has badly miscast himself in a film he made up himself. His kid is better, but you get the feeling the boy is sorta playing himself, which speaks either to his talent or limitations. If he gets hired by someone other than his parents, we may find out.
The film is not actively, aggressively bad, but it is uninspired, simplistic, and a visual letdown. It does wrap itself up neatly and answer all the questions it poses, except one: Why do people keep letting Shyamalan make movies?