In the future—at least the one imagined in After Earth, the M. Night Shyamalan sci-fi adventure conceived by Will Smith, who also stars opposite his 14-year-old son, Jaden—our planet will be evacuated after environmental degradation has rendered it unfit to support human life. Those humans who survive will settle on a distant, arid planet called Nova Prime, where all architecture is modeled after the Eero Saarinen terminal at Kennedy Airport, where all garments and surfaces are dominated by a curious honeycomb pattern, and where we eat our meals with implements that resemble three Lucite chopsticks joined at one end.
That’s about as much detail as Shyamalan and his co-screenwriter, Gary Whitta, care to provide about the culture of the colonized planet on which their tale begins. Really, After Earth is barely science fiction at all. The film’s vision of a ravaged post-human Earth is less a jumping-off point for speculation about our collective future than it is an excuse to strand the two main characters, the magnificently named General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) on an otherwise abandoned planet Earth, where the spaceship they were flying on a routine mission has been forced to make a crash landing. Everyone but the two tough-as-nails Raiges is killed, and Cypher’s legs are both broken (“one of them very badly,” he informs his son, in a tone flinty enough to imply a compound fracture amounts to a minor hassle). It’s up to the inexperienced but arrogant Kitai to make the 100-kilometer trek to the wreckage of the ship’s tail, where there’s a device that can send up an SOS signal to their home planet. (Basically, this is the next-millennium equivalent of those safety flares your dad kept in the car trunk.)
Once you accept the elemental simplicity of After Earth’s plot—it’s a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey straight down the line—you can stop resenting the movie for all the things it’s not (a rollicking summer actioner, a typical Shyamalan twist-based narrative). There’s a compelling creepiness to this quasi-mythical quest tale about a boy who must symbolically kill his father in order to save both their lives. Many summer action movies use the macho one-upmanship between fathers and sons as subplot or subtext; here, it’s both plot and text. And the fact that the battling Raiges (!) are played by a real-life father-and-son pair—not to mention such a powerful, famous, and publicly eccentric one—only intensifies After Earth’s allegorical weirdness.
The movie’s structure is as simple as a board game: Kitai must traverse a preselected path between their crash site and the tail, avoiding obstacles along the way. These obstacles include super-predators who have evolved in ways dangerous to humans (a pack of slavering leopard-like hyenas, a bird of prey roughly the size of a jeep); an insectoid alien that can smell human fear; and extreme weather conditions (for reasons not well explained, the Earth freezes over completely every night, so Kitai can survive only by locating geothermal pockets of warmth). For most of his journey, the boy is accompanied virtually by his dad’s voice and face on his naviband, a device he wears on a cuff around his arm. This paternal Panopticon, augmented by another camera on Kitai’s back and still more in the air, enables Cypher to observe every last detail of his son’s behavior. When Kitai lies about how many oxygenated breathing capsules he has left (he’s broken some in a fall), Raige père makes him put his money where his mouth is and display the remaining capsules on screen. I’m not sure whether Shyamalan intended this middle section to be a commentary on parental surveillance in the age of Facebook, but I can imagine how those cumulative busted-by-dad moments (and young Kitai’s eventual act of rebellion) might resonate with teenage viewers.
In the last half-hour, after Kitai slips the bounds of his father’s tech-assisted overparenting, the movie gives full voice to its animating philosophy, which resides somewhere at the convergence point of Life of Pi, Dianetics, and Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmations. Fear is not real; be in the now; you had the power in you all along. In the climactic scene, cut off from communication with Cypher, Kitai performs a kind of channeling act in which his father’s voice, now internalized as his own common sense, talks him toward a solution which I won’t detail except to say that it involves some of the most triumphantly phallic use of technology since Luke Skywalker first brandished a lightsaber. Kitai’s dad-assisted apotheosis serves as an almost too-precise metaphor for what’s been happening the whole movie, with the hardworking but less than mesmerizing Jaden Smith standing in as proxy action hero for his sacrificially self-sidelined father. In his defense, the kid is saddled with a task that even a more experienced actor might have trouble pulling off: He must carry an entire action movie on his slender shoulders, given little more to act opposite than a succession of green-screen predators. Even with his charismatic dad in his earpiece calling the shots, Jaden can’t turn himself into a movie star by sheer force of Will.