Sunday, June 2, 2013

After Airbender: After Earth

Everybody knows the story. After his successes with The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), it was like M. Night Shyamalan got whacked on the head or something. His writing lacked imagination; he lost his directorial touch for getting subtlety out of an actor like Bruce Willis or passion out of a newcomer like Bryce Dallas Howard; and his editing lost its suspenseful timing. His subsequent films, Lady in the Water, (2006), The Happening (2008), and The Last Airbender (2010) were lopsided, toneless, or just plain bad.

With After Earth (2012), starring Will Smith as a wise father guiding his fearful son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), through a mission on Earth, now a wild environment hostile to humans, Shyamalan makes a moderate comeback in the sense that he delivers a tight story about survival and the bond between father and son that is gripping and visually engaging.

But Shyamalan has not recovered completely from that metaphorical whack on the head. His direction does not get the best out of Will Smith, and Jaden, very cute and dynamic in The Karate Kid, lacks substantial presence here. With some stilted acting and a flatness of tone that may stem from Shyamalan being too cautious and overly thoughtful in the editing, After Earth sometimes feels too sedate, but it redeems itself by being a darn good survival story.

Mixing real locations of desert and redwood forest with CGI beasts and backdrops, Shyamalan creates a realistic world. This is wilderness Earth, a Sierra Clubber’s wet dream, armed against the humans who ruined her environment. After evacuating their planet, humans settled on Nova Prime, where they came in contact with blind alien creatures called Ursas that can smell fear. Cypher, Kitai’s hero father, is famous for being able to “ghost,” which means shedding all his fear so that the aliens cannot “see” him. While we wonder if Kitai will survive his journey across hostile terrain to locate a beacon in order to save his injured father, we get the added hook of wondering if Kitai can “ghost.”

Despite the flatness of some of the scenes, the film succeeds as a simple survival tale. There are gripping moments involving Earth’s environmental hazards, and there is a nicely fanciful moment when Kitai’s encounter with a gigantic condor turns into an episode out of The Arabian Nights that has a touching resolution. After Earth fails to achieve the emotional effect of Shyamalan’s earlier films, but it is a good story, and its post-human Earth is a place worth visiting.

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