The art of storytelling is both of distinct narrative interest and personal issue in the latest payload of calcified nonsense from one of modern cinema’s oddest would-be auteurs. As in Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth is smug in its awareness of its own structure and scripting, the largest signifier of which is the name given to Will Smith’s character: Cypher Raige.
The man’s son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is a soon-to-be military ranger for Nova Prime, humanity’s new home after Earth became uninhabitable in the 21st century. Set some 1,000 years after the new planet’s settlement, After Earth kicks into gear when, on its way from Nova Prime to dispose of a deadly alien called an Ursa, a transport crash-lands on Earth, splitting in half and killing everyone on board except for Kitai and Cypher. The main hub that carries the father and son lands miles away from the tail end of the transport, which holds a crucial honing beacon, and with his father paralyzed and bleeding out, young Kitai is forced to trek across the dangerous terrain that separates the ship’s two halves, evading all manner of CGI baddies along the way.
Cypher guides Kitai through Earth via a host of communicative devices which allow him to maintain constant verbal and visual contact with his son and know where he and their adversaries are at all times. By essentially marking the beats of Kitai’s scenes, Cypher also explicitly leads the audience through each sequence, and the effect on the film is lethal, perpetually zapping it of narrative tension. The dialogue is self-conscious, but only enough for Shyamalan to coyly convey that he gets how invariably methodical every action of the script is without indulging and having fun with the narrative freedom such cognizance allows. Then again, fun doesn’t seem to be of particular interest to the filmmaker: The action sequences are brief and marked more by their decibel level than by their clarity, and the few instances of humor land with a proverbial thud.
In lieu of subverting narrative conventions, Shyamalan fixates on his characters’ fears, or lack thereof, in the process illuminating his own. Cypher is known for his “ghosting” ability, which means he has no fear and therefore can’t be sensed by Ursas. Kitai, though, reels from witnessing his sister’s (Zoë Kravitz) murder by one of the aliens, and the film is more or less about him learning to let go of his panic. In other words, his detached sense of duty must override personal emotions. Indeed, it’s Cypher’s voice, giving Kitai literal and figurative directions on “ghosting,” that we hear during the film’s climax. The son can only become a man by relying solely on, and strictly adhering to, his father’s guidance. Even when Kitai loses contact with his father at one point, it’s his recollection of Cypher’s directions that saves him from certain doom. In After Earth, the once-promising Shyamalan imparts false wisdom from his disappointed, self-important view of filmmaking: Don’t try anything new or different if you want to survive out here.