As big-budget summer movies go, After Earth hits every bare-minimum requirement you could ask for: it sets up a new mythology without being confusing (in the least); its action is rooted in the (very simple) themes established by the story; and its structure is so self-contained that it moves like clockwork — every action-inducing hiccup and plot turn is simultaneously fully expected and entirely satisfying.
But it’s watchable precisely because there is nothing about it that feels the least bit risk-taking. This is at odds with the ostensible message of the film, which is that life is about learning to overcome your fear of taking risks. So that’s a paradox, but it doesn’t sink the film. Because let me be honest: I knew going into After Earth that I’d be watching a Will Smith movie, and I know from years of Will Smith movies that Will Smith movies are movies in which Will Smith plays some variation or another of his stock character, the Greatest and Most Successful Human Being Who’s Ever Lived. Will Smith “movies” are in actuality thinly disguised Will Smith vanity projects. They are all essentially about a movie star who has conquered the world and now has the power to design and present to that world stories that celebrate his own greatness. People can be either annoyed by the arrogance of this phenomenon, or they can buy into it, happy to watch and maybe live vicariously through flicks that offer us visions of great men doing great things. Personally, I figure if I’m going to have to sit through another Will Smith movie (like I did for Men in Black III last summer) I might as well accept the star’s ego as a common denominator and judge the film from there. So, After Earth is a thoroughly professional, well-crafted and even the tiniest bit affecting would-be summer blockbuster. If, through the thick glop of Will Smith’s ego that coats this super-production, you can emerge with a film that in some way connects to humanity, then I think some praise is due for someone.
Is the person who makes that small triumph possible M. Night Shyamalan, the The Sixth Sense director who was once considered an auteur but has devolved into a highly-skilled blockbuster-maker-for-hire? He certainly keeps the story moving, balancing spectacle with human interest as effectively as you would hope a professional could. Is that person Will Smith? He certainly is good at holding the movie together by conveying a sense of paternal wisdom and strength. Plus, he gets sole “story by” credit, so he must be the guy responsible for this sci-fi-action spectacle being, at its core, a sincere, if ludicrously arrogant, father-son relationship movie.
Anyway, the story is about a famous general, hilariously, pretentiously and futuristically named Cypher Raige (Smith). Raige is all of those adjectives listed above — paternal, wise, strong — and he’s also the latest iteration of that Will Smith stock character, the greatest etc who’s ever lived. In this case, he is The Greatest Warrior that The Universe has Ever Known, the commander of a military force called the Rangers, who protect the humanity of the future from the aliens who prowl the distant planet where, 1000 years ago, they all relocated when the Earth, presumably fed up with all the wars and famine and rape and celebrity culture that constantly threatened it, belched us up off its surface.
In addition to being The Greatest blah blah blah of All Time, Raige is an absentee father. His son, Kitai (Smith’s actual son Jaden), wants badly to impress his father by becoming one of the Rangers, but he can’t make it through training because he’s got a rather understandable fear of battle. Fear is a particularly shameful emotion for Kitai because it’s the very one his father is famous for having overcome (which is what allowed him to become the Greatest etc). When he returns from battle to find his son has failed Ranger school, Raige lays on the lecturing a bit thick, so he has to make it up to the boy by toting him along on a training mission to another distant planet.
They take off through space, Raige working half-heartedly at the father-son bonding with which he’s tasked himself. On the way their spaceship hits a few asteroids and they crash land on Earth, thereby ending the planet’s 1000 year humanity-free winning streak. Raige sustains a bit of lacerating trauma in the crash, but the boy survives intact. The rest of the movie concerns itself with whether the wet-behind-the ears kid can save his battle-hardened father from their hostile surroundings by learning to conquer his fear, which appears in the guise of the various monkeys, leeches, and attack birds that have proliferated on Earth since Man’s departure.
Will he be able to? And is that question nearly as important as whether Will Smith or M. Night Shyamalan is the talent responsible for the surprising efficacy of this movie? Yes and no. Yes, of course the kid will do it, and thankfully, because Smith and Shyamalan are pretty good at what they do, no, the movie isn’t half bad.
Of course, proficiency and professionalism and a couple of exciting action sequences are no excuse for a transparently arrogant movie in which a star asserts to the world that he is great and that one day soon his son will be too. Beyond all that, After Earth is damned entertaining, and though it certainly isn’t what you might call thought-provoking, it is well enough made for you to feel that your intelligence isn’t being insulted. If it’s about no more than the assertion that a powerful man and his privileged son are super awesome people, at least that comes wrapped in a story about a father learning to love his son. How many mega-productions can claim that as their driving force?