Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I’ve never been a fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s brand of high-concept solemnity. Yet his latest, the sci-fi fantasy “After Earth,” is so measured — so delicate and quiet and grave — that I found myself rooting for it almost immediately. The plot centers on the family of Cypher Raige, played by Will Smith. He’s a warrior who, as his name suggests, has developed the ability to mask his emotions. He uses this trick to render himself invisible to future humanity’s greatest enemy, a nightmare species of bugaboo that can see only fear. His son Kitai, played by Smith’s son Jaden, is a young teen trying in vain to reach his impervious papa. When the pair are stranded on their ancestral world, now an overgrown wilderness crawling with beasties, it’s up to Kitai to save them — and in the process prove his worth.
The screenplay, by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, is anything but surprising, but the movie treads so carefully that you may end up appreciating its straightforwardness — it has the clarity and inevitability of a fable. The look is fable-like, too. Veteran cinematographer Peter Suschitzky gives his images a somberness and tactility that is at times almost sensual; like the Ballard-Deschanel “Black Stallion,” it’s a movie you want to touch. There’s plenty here to explore: the design is an evocative combo of future-tech sleakness and organic irregularity. When Kitai leaves his injured father in the crashed ship, the contrast between the floating-touchscreen aesthetic of the cabin and the eerie, verdant growth of the forest gives the theme of transformation a neat visual corollary. (Fittingly, the environments are separated by a valve-like partition, which flaps and pulsates like a biological membrane.)
Smith fils isn’t much of an actor, and his few big emotional scenes are an embarrassment. Fortunately, Shyamalan rarely allows the movie to settle on him. He leans instead on the elder Smith, whose presence in the downed ship is a near constant. The strategy works: the star gives a marvelously controlled performance. Reining in his usually radiant charisma, Smith projects a seriousness that’s just barely breached by his paternal sympathies. These we absorb subconsciously, through the quaver in the deeper registers of his voice and the light at the bottom of his eyes. Smith is so good at playing the movie star game that it’s possible we’ve underrated him as an actor. Here, as in “I Am Legend” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” he shows himself capable of sustaining a complex blend of emotions, almost without assistance.
For Smith, the film’s conceit may have real-world significance. Stranded inside the wreck, his Cypher is forced to coach his son through dangerous terrain, all the while monitoring the boy’s every move via remote cameras and a panoply of screens. If the story of “After Earth” involves a test of Kitai, the movie’s existence is inseparable from Jaden’s ongoing assessment as a media figure — and it’s hard to imagine that Smith isn’t hip to the possibility of this reading.
“After Earth” is not a great film. The direction and editing sometimes fail to live up to the potential of the action set-pieces. And certain suspense gimmicks — a network of hot spots that Kitai must locate before nightfall, a series of oxygen boosters that he must inhale in order to breathe — have not been satisfyingly worked into the narrative. But these seem like minor quibbles when balanced against the movie’s charms. As corporate-minded fantasy has colonized the multiplex, jumbled franticness and gross gigantism have become the norm in blockbuster filmmaking. The problem is so extreme that even a traditionally staid and character-focused franchise like “Star Trek” has been rejiggered to out-whoosh, out-blam, and out-stupid the competition. “After Earth,” a simple little film by contemporary standards, offers respite to fans of the genre. It’s shelter from the storm.