I have a strange soft spot for M. Night Shyamalan’s work. I don’t know why. Like most people, I think his best three films are Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense, with Signs being my personal favorite. But maybe it’s just that, through all the disappointments, I feel that he is still an artist with a vision and something to say. It’s just…something went off in a different direction with his style of filmmaking, and the acting choices he wants from his actors. Whatever the reason, I still manage to pull something meaningful out of his films, even if they aren’t as great as they once were. With After Earth, that Shyamalan mediocrity that we’ve had to get used to is unfortunately still there. But after difficult First Act, I actually found myself warming up to the movie. Once young Kitai was off on his adventure, there was less talking from him and more action. Jaden’s Smith’s performance may not have been perfect. But I did feel something for this kid, who only ever wanted to make his father proud. Even if the conclusion is inevitable and we know that things are going to turn out okay, I enjoyed the movie. It had some positive messages about facing fear, knowing that it is an illusion, and how when worse comes to worse, remembering to ground yourself in the present moment.
One of the things I do admire about M. Night’s movies is that you can usually count on the danger being taken seriously, and he does a good job building the rules of the universes his characters inhabit. The film has a few moments of humor to relieve the tension, but it never got too bogged down into seriousness like some of his other films have. There was actually a favorite scene I had in the film. It’s where Kitai gets bitten by a poisonous leech, and in order to stop the poison from spreading, he has to stab a needle in his heart with the antidote medication for it to spread through his system. The scene had me on edge to watch the poor kid have to stick something in his heart to save himself. It’s the one scene where I really felt I saw a kid having to overcome his fear to save himself from death. Strangely with the scene of him jumping off a log to fly, not so much. I didn’t see the fear in his eyes the way I did in that earlier scene.
Part of the story involves an alien creature known as an Ursa that can “smell fear” through a release of skin pharamones when a person becomes frightened. Kitai’s father learned a technique, called “ghosting”, which purges fear and makes the creatures unable to sense their victim. As you can guess, Kitai discovers this technique in himself when he has to face the creature in the climax of the movie. But personally, the moment didn’t feel earned. The film in my opinion didn’t build the stakes enough in its danger scenarios for me to believe that this kid found it in himself to conquer his fears. The problem also lies in the first act of the film, where Kitai comes off as whiny and spoiled. I couldn’t quite understand how I was supposed to feel the conflict between him and his father, when for the most part, his father is right. There wasn’t enough of a build up in the conflict between them in those first scenes to relate to Kitai for me to want to side with him. Kitai seemed more relatable to me once he was away from his father, facing danger, and having to make choices to survive.
When it comes to movies, one of the things I can’t do is judge child actors too harshly, because many times I think some of the criticism is unwarranted when we’re talking about a kid who is trying their best at a performance. Admittedly, Jaden Smith has some trouble when it comes to his dialogue scenes, and he’s a bit difficult to understand when he voices the opening monologue. But for a child actor, I found he was very good at being physical, such as with the needle in the chest scene, which I thought he pulled off well. It might have been more of a challenge if he had to pantomime act through the movie, but the less he talked and the more he did in action scenes, the more I was engaged with him. It’s more issues with the script than him where the film has its problems.
Overall, I kind of liked After Earth. It’s not a great movie by any means but it was enjoyable and fun at times. I think it’s also a decent film for parents looking to take their kids to a movie this summer, one that actually has perilous moments taken seriously that kids can relate to. It’s certainly better than most of what you’ll seen in the theater right now. It’s a story that doesn’t need to be too big or too epic to make it’s point. It’s fast paced, and for the most part it’s an enjoyable ride that I recommend you check out.