Yes, His Name Is Supposed To Be Cypher Raige: How can a man in a white jumpsuit look so completely fucking dour?
  • Yes, His Name Is Supposed To Be "Cypher Raige": How can a man in a white jumpsuit look so completely fucking dour?

After Earth opens with a jarring starship crash. A son, who we will soon learn is named, yes, "Kitai Raige" (Jaden Smith) is terrified and strapped into a seat as all around him people in futuristic jumpsuits panic and scream. Something serious is going on. Then his father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith, who also came up with the story and, one fears, the character's names) tries to console Kitai, but is blown away in a burst of explosive decompression. These few shots are tense and panicky and they make you feel like the movie started too soon. For a split second while watching these scenes, I thought to myself, "FINALLY, a popcorn sci-fi movie that drops you into the action and lets you learn about the world through context, rather than dull exposition!"

And then the exposition started, in the form of a flashback. And holy hell, is it some awful exposition, maybe the worst opening exposition in a sci-fi movie since Green Lantern. We are given the full story of After Earth in a couple minutes of stultifying voiceover. The Earth was polluted beyond repair, so humanity took to the stars. On a new world, we fought some aliens and won, but the aliens sent down these super-scary monsters (they're pale and have many legs and interesting jaws, which is to say that they look like just about every other CGI space monster created in the last few years) who are only able to see us when we're afraid of them. When a human isn't afraid of these creatures, they're totally invisible to the creature, which is called "ghosting." And the biggest, baddest monster-hunter is Cypher Raige, who never shows any fear. Cypher's son, though, is full of fear. Kitai's sister was killed by one of the monsters and he wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but he's crippled by doubt.

Finally, when we get back to the thrilling space-crash scenes, which aren't nearly as thrilling the second time around, Kitai wakes up crash-landed on Earth. His dad's legs are broken, and he needs to travel 100 kilometers to get the space-beacon that was in the tail of the starship, which broke off during the landing. What follows is your standard Hollywood hero's journey paint-by-numbers plot, or a really basic video game: Kitai encounters a series of creatures (a leech, a bunch of baboons, a giant vulture) and is challenged but eventually overcomes the creatures one at a time, building, eventually, to a fight with the big boss monster. Did I mention that one of those fear-seeing creatures was on the starship? That's probably going to be important later on. It all moves along quickly enough, and though there aren't any surprises, Jaden Smith is a competent actor, and Will Smith is forced to sit still and emote, which feels like a nice change for him. The script is relatively humorless, and it's not helped by the future-Earthling accents, which sound like a cross between the Kennedy family accent, a fake southern drawl, and a bad British butler.

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But the visuals in After Earth are the real star. Somehow, just when everybody finally wrote M. Night Shyamalan off as a director, he manages to do something right. While a lot of After Earth's suspense comes from standard slasher-movie jump cuts, Shyamalan often manages to sneak a gorgeous shot into the mix to make it all ten times more interesting: A membranous wall of the broken starship catches and opens and closes, as if "breathing," on the corpse of a passenger who didn't survive the crash. A pile of dead forest animals is arranged in a particularly alarming way. A toxin causes some disturbing physical side effects. At those few moments, which are scattered throughout the film at seemingly random intervals, you can almost remember a time when people straight-facedly called Shyamalan the next Spielberg. But then something hackneyed happens, and you remember all the shit that's gone down since those days. As it is, he's a gifted hack, and that works just fine for the material he's working with here.

There's not a whole lot of science in this science fiction, but I'd still call it a better sci-fi film than this spring's aggressively mediocre Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion. While Oblivion was a pastiche of a slew of other, better sci-fi movies all wrapped up in an aesthetic cribbed straight from the Apple Store, After Earth doesn't have any pretensions about its cinematic sourcing. It's your standard father-son movie smooshed together with a child-in-the-wild adventure yarn, tossed around with some interesting-looking tech. Unlike Oblivion, After Earth at least feels honest about its pedestrian nature, and a little honesty goes a long way with a movie like this.