Everyone walks into a M. Night Shyamalan film knowing to expect the unexpected, and this has come to be sort of a problem for the director in his recent movies, none of which has been able to deliver the monumental twist of his highly regarded "The Sixth Sense."
So perhaps it can be considered a twist that the most unexpected element of his latest film, "After Earth," is how expected it all is. Considering that the story was conceived by Will Smith (with a screenplay written by Gary Whitta with some revisions by Shyamalan), it's unlikely that was a deliberate measure on the part of the director. Rather, aside from its Shyamalan sheen, "After Earth" emerges a sentimental, predictable, father-son tale set in a sci-fi future – starring, you guessed it, a real-life father and son: Will and Jaden Smith.
A millennia after humanity's abuse of Earth requires its evacuation of the planet, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is the workaholic father to Kitai (Jaden Smith). Not just any absent dad, Cypher is a pioneering super soldier that leads his civilization's efforts to ward off alien creatures called Ursas. These specially-bred monsters can detect human fear and hunt humans down once they do. Cypher has mastered the art of ridding one's self of fear, a technique called "ghosting." His son, naturally, is an absolute scaredy cat, who must conquer his fear when a mission gone awry strands Cypher and Kitai on Earth. On bring-your-son-to-work day (not really) Cypher's ship crashes on the quarantined planet, drastically injuring Cypher and killing everyone else aboard. Kitai must retrieve a futuristic flare gun, which landed many miles away, for any chance of survival.
Earth has been pushed to the extremes in the 1,000 years since humans' presence. But Kitai's real threat comes from an Ursa that has escaped from its cage in the crash (why it was ever on the ship in the first place is never really explained). Thus the conquest of fear is always Kitai's central challenge. But since this is all so obvious from the outset of "After Earth," watching Kitai run from some amped up zoo favorites is actually quite boring. Much more could have been done with the premise of an Earth deserted by humans for 1,000 years.
As soon as the trailer appeared, the Internet abounded with theories of the film's Scientology undertones, as Smith is rumored to be a Scientologist (a claim he and his family denies). But it's hard to shake off that the abandoned Earth motif and the plentiful volcano imagery are both reminiscent of Scientology's Xenu myth (if you are unfamiliar with this, might I suggest the infamous "South Park" episode). Furthermore, that fear is a deficiency that must be overcome rings true with Scientology's concept of engrams – memories of sorts that continue to invoke pain — and the desire to control one's emotions.
Such similarities – be them coincidental or deliberate — may go unnoticed by viewers. But the overall simplicity of the concept, along with some other questionable lapses in plot (including which animal comes closest to killing the hero) throw "After Earth" off its tilt.
As the stoic father, Will Smith's serious, somber carriage doesn't crack. Jaden Smith meanwhile wears terror quite ably, a look of panic almost permanently etched on to his face. The contrast of the two characters, each stuck on his side of the fear spectrum, escalates their performances into caricature territory.
Shyamalan's stylistic treatments bring "After Earth" closest to redemption (albeit, not very close at all). Rather than a steely, hard and cold, Cypher's ship takes on an organic aesthetic — body-like, even — with a skeleton, tendons and membranes. Ever present is Shyamalan's squeaky, string score that punch his most suspenseful sequences. Shyamalan's reverence for nature is also evident in the film's suggestion that man's recklessness created his own worst enemy, and yet there was still much wild beauty and order to be found on Earth, 1,000 years later.
But Shyamalan's flourishes can't save Smith's story, which, even with all the Scientology rumors, feels actually quite stodgy.