M. Night has built his reputation on moody adult thrillers and you'd be forgiven for expecting more of the same here. But while After Earth retains the director's innate seriousness, a solemn tone that's often unneeded, this is a solid sci-fi adventure yarn for its 12A age group.
1000 years since Earth was rendered uninhabitable, space ranger cadet Jaden Smith and legendary warrior dad Will crash-land on the planet, where everything - plants, animals, insects and weather - has evolved to kill humans (Australia, then). Injured in the crash, Will is forced to stay put while Jaden sets off on some dangerous terrain to locate a beacon that will allow them to contact a rescue party, keeping tabs on the boy via a console. Dad's guidance will be needed as their cargo - a lethal creature called an Ursa, which tracks humans by sensing fear - is right behind him...
M. Night is guilty of a few things here. One is the lack of wonder and awe he gives this alien landscape. This is the first time this kid has clasped eyes on this renowned planet but he doesn't seem all that fussed; Jaden Smith might not be blessed with his father's cool charisma but he is asked to act solo for practically the entire movie, which isn't easy. Another problem is Will Smith's matter-of-fact delivery, which could be explained away as the voice of a hardened soldier who feels no fear (a tactic called 'ghosting', which makes him invisible to Ursas), but it's distracting. When Smith eventually does his best to emote, he's hampered by some stiff dialogue. The plot holes are wide and varied too.
That beign said, for an adventure romp pitched at kids, After Earth keeps the pot boiling throughout. There's always something happening. The expected heart-to-heart chats between aloof father and whimpering son stuff works, stopping short of being overly sentimental, and Shyamalan doesn't dwell too much on them, putting his young star in peril as often as he can. M. Night's obvious boredom with perfect spaceships that glide effortlessly through space is a welcome turn - spaceship Smith is basically a loud, uncomfortable aeroplane and every shudder is felt during its brush with an asteroid belt. It's an odd thing to focus on but there you have it. It stood out.
After Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender, After Earth might not be the comeback Shyamalan would have hoped but it has at least stopped the rot.