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After Earth

“Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” This limpid tag line of the most recent production from team Pinkett Smith, serves as a beacon that keeps the viewer and the story on track.  After Earth, opening this Friday, is the latest in a series of Talmudic-like morality tales from the high achieving family. Beginning with The Pursuit of Happyness and continuing with Seven Pounds and even the remake of The Karate Kid, each of these recent films focuses on delivering tips for a successful and fulfilling life to its audience. Happyness was about self-confidence. Seven Pounds focused on redemption and the connection between giving to others and forgiveness. After Earth is about the idea that fear is a construct of the mind that can be overcome by refusing to give the unknown outcomes of the future any power in the present.

The story takes place in the future: 1,000 years after humans were forced to flee Earth due to unknown cataclysmic events, and take refuge on the planet Nova Prime. Once there, they encounter a monster-like alien that preys on human fear. Cypher Raige (Will Smith), is a General whose ability to control his fear and make himself essentially invisible to the aliens (an ability called ‘ghosting’), has given him legendary status among the rangers of Nova Prime. However, his standing with his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is not as good.

Kitai is a cadet who possesses superior skills to his peers, but is continually denied a promotion to Ranger because of his constant failure to perform under pressure. His inability to live up to his father’s expectations heavily strains their relationship. At the behest of his wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo), Cypher takes Kitai with him on a routine mission to deliver a captured alien to another planet. Of course the routine mission becomes anything but, when the ship they are traveling in crashes onto Earth, leaving no survivors save for Cypher and Kitai. The emergency beacon they need to call for help is in the dislodged tail of the ship. Cypher is badly injured from the crash, leaving Kitai to go after the beacon alone. Miles of rough terrain, animals that have evolved to kill humans, a possible alien monster, and the conquering of his own fears, stand between him and salvation.

After Earth is a father and son story of survival during which the son comes of age. It draws to mind other recent father/son survival films such as The Road, Road to Perdition, and even The Pursuit of Happyness. However, it differs from those films in that its protagonist is the son, rather than the father. Jaden Smith is required to hold the screen alone for several segments of the film—a feat rarely entrusted to an actor so young.

Unlike the character he portrays, Jaden Smith takes on this challenge with unwavering confidence in his considerable skills, proving that (in this case) the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In one particular scene, he is called upon to cry out of frustration from his father’s lack of trust in him and regret over a past decision. He not only brought the tears, but he delivered them with the requisite underlying emotion and restrained intensity one might expect from an old wound that slowly surfaces. He will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

While not his strongest performance to date, Will Smith delivers solidly in a role that allows him very little leeway in displaying his strong personal charisma. Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) is always lovely and seemingly incapable of a false moment on camera. This performance is no exception; she has far too little screen time for her prodigious ability. Zoe Isabella Kravitz was perfectly cast as Cypher and Faia’s daughter.

With the exception of a somewhat clunky exposition to start (made up of a flashback, a flash forward, and a voice over), the film has very good pacing. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) shots flowed together nicely and the angles complemented each other quite well. Will Smith’s character spent roughly 70% of the film in the same physical location, but each scene seemed to be shot from a fresh angle.

If the audience doesn’t stick around for the closing credits, they may never realize that the film’s director is quite well established. M. Night Shayamalan helms this project, though you are unlikely to know it from any of the promotional material out there. This doesn’t feel like the typical Shayamalan production, but his fingerprints are evident nonetheless. Specifically during a handful of spine tingling moments, and in the make up of the score, composed by long time Shayamalan collaborator James Newton Howard.

While After Earth does suffer at times—from stilted dialogue, CGI animals that can be distracting, a few melodramatic moments, and a story-line about quickly evolving animals that seems to have no basis in science—it is overall a well directed movie that serves to announce that Mr. Shayamalan has not lost his touch. It is by no means Bicycle Thieves (the holy grail of father/son dramas), but it is a heart-warming morality tale that is at times thrilling, funny and inspiring. If you’re in the mood for a popcorn flick, you may want to check it out.

Comments

Sounds cool. Can't wait to see this movie. I look forward to it. - James Stuckey

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