A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"After Earth" is a lovely surprise. This film from producer-costar Will Smith and director M. Night Shyamalan, about a father and son marooned on a hostile future earth, is a moral tale disguised as a sci-fi blockbuster. It's no classic, but it's a special movie: spectacular and wise.
Smith plays a veteran space soldier with the metaphorically overripe name of Cypher Raige. The actor's real-life son Jaden ("The Karate Kid," "The Pursuit of Happyness") plays Cypher's son Kitai, an aspiring warrior who just failed his cadet promotion test. The script, cowritten by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, lays out a futureworld in brisk brushstrokes. Humans have fled a polluted Earth and built cities on the distant Nova Prime. Unfortunately, the planet was already claimed by another species that didn't take kindly to the colonists and created predators to kill them. The predators are called ursas. They look a like huge versions of Mike from "Monsters, Inc.," only dipped in acid and slime and outfitted with razor fangs and pincers. They hunt by smelling fear.
The humans of Nova Prime fought the ursas to a draw, but one of them still killed Kitai's sister during a home invasion when the boy was younger. The kid has a survivor's guilt, and his dad feels horrible for being away on assignment when the nightmare happened. On top of all this, Cypher's a bit of a Cypher: a warrior known for his ability to "ghost," slang for fighting without fear, but very much a ramrod-straight man-of-few-words type, so emotionally constipated that he seems to have to remind himself what laughter sounds like. Kitai is the eager young space cadet trying to embody and exceed his father's example, craving expressions of approval and love that his pop's not wired to provide.
I realize I've described the main characters as if we spend the first hour eavesdropping on them in therapy. "After Earth" isn't like that. It's a stoic film about stoic characters fighting for their lives. The Raiges' ship is damaged in a freak asteroid storm, tossed out of hyperspace and into Earth's orbit, skims across the atmosphere like a pie plate, and is torn in two. Cypher and Kitai are the only survivors from the front half. Their distress beacon has been destroyed in the crash. The ship's back half, which might or might not contain a working distress beacon, is 100 kilometers away. If the castaways don't call for help soon, they'll asphyxiate or get eaten by predators, one of which is an ursa that was cargo on their ship, set free by the crash.