My Take: "After Earth" Is a GREAT Coming-of-Age Story (Some Spoilage)
#1
"After Earth" is the best M. Night Shyamalan movie I have ever seen. I had heard that the critics were panning "After Earth". Why? I have no idea. Movie critics tend to come across like idiots.

This movie tells a great story (which the credits attribute to Will Smith). Young Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), son of the legendary Ranger general Cypher Raige (Will Smith), is trying to follow in his father's footsteps by training for the Ranger Corps. Humanity's sojourn on Earth ended a thousand years in the past when mankind fled a poisoned planet. But after finding a new home among the stars they encountered an alien race which bred biological killing machines, called Ursas, to hunt down humans based on their fear pheromones.

Kitai has spent a year training as a Ranger cadet but when it comes time to be promoted to the next phase he is turned down because even though he does well in the classroom his field trials have been anything other than stellar.

When dad comes home briefly between mission he tells mom (Faia Raige, played by Sophie Okonedo) that he is ready to retire and take a civilian job. She is skeptical but she has more important matters on her mind. Kitai is weighed down by guilt and shame -- but they do not stem from his failure to advance to the second stage of training with other Ranger cadets.

It turns out that Kitai is haunted by the memory of his older sister, who had been a Ranger. She sacrificed herself to save him from an Ursa that somehow invaded their home. As the story unfolds we learn that Kitai believes his father was disappointed him for not confronting the monster that killed his sister. What the audience never sees, however, is Cypher Raige expressing any disapproval of or shame for his son. In classic M. Night Shyamalan fashion we are left to infer for ourselves what the father actually feels or has (not) said to his son.

General Cypher, at the urging of his wife, tries to be a father and orders his son to accompany him on a training mission. But the flight goes terribly wrong and their starship crashes on a Class 1 Quarantined planet: Earth.

Earth has changed in 1,000 years -- it's no longer hospitable to humankind, and even the atmosphere is hard to breathe. The crash landing on the plant kills most of the crew and passengers, scattering survivors across the landscape. The ship's top secret cargo, by the way, was a young Ursa captured in "fetal stage" -- it was to be used in live training.

When General Raige awakens amid the wreckage he only has his son for a companion. After assessing their situation they determine that they have to retrieve an emergency beacon that was located in the ship's tail section -- which according to sensors lies 100 kilometers away, across a world filled with dangerous lifeforms. And somewhere out there, they assume, is the formerly captive Ursa.

Dad is too injured to leave the wreckage of the main fuselage so it is up to young Kitai to undertake the dangerous journey and find the beacon. He not only has to face a world full of terrors, he must confront and learn to understand his own fear.

That's the setup, and although one might expect they take a fair amount of time to explain all that the movie really dives right into action and the director uses carefully doled-out flashbacks to explain the whole backstory. This is not about the fate of humanity. The Ursas won't be any less dangerous after we reach the movie's end. This is only the kind of epic adventure that helps a boy learn how to be a man.

Jaden Smith does a fantastic job of portraying Kitai. Will Smith has expressed his pride at his son's acting in this film and I must say that his praise was completely earned. The scenes where Kitai interacts with "native lifeforms" are, for me, completely plausible. You really think the animals are there, being "dangerous Earth life".

Since this is a coming-of-age story there are certain elements that must be included, among which is the unexpected bond that forms between boy and former adversary. You've encountered this brilliant relationship in a thousand juvenile novels and movies but Shyamalan puts his trademark little twist on it so that when you see what is actually happening it's too late -- you've been taken in. The director has not lot his keen sense of illusionary misdirection that has mesmerized audiences around the world -- rather, he has simply found something more profound than inexplicable alien invaders and reclusive anti-technologists who want to turn their backs on the world. You may see dead people in this movie but there's no surprise ending because all the surprises are in the story itself.

I found the pacing to be excellent. Some Shyamalan movies can seem really slow in the middle. "Signs" (which I really enjoyed) does seem interminably long in the middle. And one complaint I had about "Signs" was that the flashbacks were too vague and disconnected until the final scene; that problem has been rectified in "After Earth". Each flashback shares an important point without revealing everything necessary to understand what is really going on.

In fact, I may have told you too much about the setup -- which is really the main plot of the movie. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan has made setup for the story more important than the action that lies between beginning and end. We have seen the action before with a hundred heroic faces attached to it. But Jaden Smith and Shyamalan make it all seem fresh because we keep expecting monsters and don't realize until almost the very end where the real monster is and just how closely it follows the young Kitai.

I not only expect to see this movie again I know I will buy the DvD. I would have preferred to see a sequel to "Avatar: The Last Airbender" by now but "After Earth" is a very pleasant alternative -- an in fact it has surpassed my expectations.
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