Following is a transcribed version of the review of “After Earth” that I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:
Wednesday evening, backstage at the Bing Crosby Theater waiting to be part of the special SPR Goes to the Movies event, my “Movies 101” colleagues Nathan Weinbender, Leonard Oakland, Barb Williamson and I pondered a difficult question.
Whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan?
The literal answer, of course, is he’s still making movies. Trouble is, you’d barely notice it.
After gaining fame with his third film, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” for the next nine years writer-director Shyamalan offered up one big-screen project after the next – all bearing his auteurish trademarks: slick cinematography and patient pacing in support of stories that relied on mystery, suspense and typically one huge surprising twist: “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening.”
Problem is, by the time this string had run out, so – it was fairly clear – had Shyamalan. Plots that once seemed fresh had turned predictable. Even his technical prowess – those cool color tones, precise focus and crisp edits marking artfully crafted scenes in “Unbreakable,” for example – had faded. Much of “The Happening” seems, I don’t know, sloppy?
Then, in 2010, Shyamalan – still writing and directing – gave us “The Last Airbender,” a fumbling attempt at creating a kiddie/martial arts/Eastern religion/magic-action film. Or something.
Now comes “After Earth,” and … again, the question: Whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Seriously, if you didn’t know going in that this film were directed – and, for the first time, co-written – by Shyamalan, you’d never suspect it. Not until the closing credits, that is.
For whatever reason, Shyamalan was hired to helm what otherwise is a Smith family vanity project. Will Smith, who gets story credit, stars as General Cypher Raige, while son Jaden co-stars as the general’s son Kitai. Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith – along with Pinkett Smith’s brother, Caleeb Pinkett – are listed as producers.
Set a thousand years in the future, “After Earth” tells us that humans long age deserted the planet, having both polluted it and encountered a breed of murderous aliens called The Ursa. From the comfort of their new world, Nova Prime – which looks as if an IKEA store has been plopped into the Grand Canyon – General Raige takes his son with him on a space mission whose routine nature turns serious when their ship runs into a bunch of space rocks. Forced to crash-land on, of all places, Earth, the two sole-surviving Raiges must navigate a planet on which every life form poses a threat. Because the general is injured, it falls to Kitai to overcome the elements – including a pesky roving Ursa – and find the rescue beacon that can save them both.
Complicating matters is the fact that Kitai, still traumatized by seeing his older sister murdered by an Ursa, is unable to control his fear – the scent of which makes him vulnerable to Ursa attack.
Listing all that is wrong with “After Earth” would take far too long. Slow, badly acted (the younger Smith simply can’t carry a film), bearing nonsensical plot points (a planet that freezes every night looks like a fern-covered Redwood forest during the daytime) and ultimately predictable, “After Earth” is likely to fade from consciousness even before you exit the theater.
But you might be thinking this: Seeing the name Shyamalan on a movie just doesn’t mean much anymore.