In a book offering instruction to would-be novelists, the great science fiction author, Orson Scott Card, warned against using prologues, admitting, “I have never—not once—found that by skipping the prologue I missed some information I needed to have in order to read the story; and when I have read the prologue first, I have never—not once—found it interesting, helpful or even understandable.”
It’s advice that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan would have been wise to heed with his new sci-fi film, After Earth (rated PG-13 for action violence and some gory alien attacks).
Acting as a sort of cinematic prologue, the first 30 minutes of After Earth provide a stilted, overly narrated scene-setting for the real story to come. We learn that the time is 1,000 years after humanity has permanently poisoned Earth’s atmosphere with carbon. We learn that the global-warming survivors have escaped to a new planet outside of our solar system called Nova Prime. We learn that Nova Prime is home to an insectile breed of alien that tracks humans by smelling fear and that a few elite rangers are able to turn off their fear impulse—called “ghosting”—and, thus, are the only ones able to kill the aliens. And we learn that while General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is the ghostiest of all the ghost rangers, his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is unable to match his father’s fearlessness.
All of it is, if not un-understandable, at least as uninteresting and unhelpful as Card predicts. Even worse, it clutters up what could have been an exciting father-son survival narrative with superfluous backstory and robs Shyamalan of precious screen time that would have been better devoted to developing fully fleshed-out characters and plugging a few planet-sized plot holes.
The human-free Earth that Cypher and Kitai crash on is a thriving and beautiful, if dangerously Darwinian, paradise. Unfortunately, they are unable to breathe the poisoned air (despite the fact all the monkeys, tigers, snakes, and birds have no problem with it), leaving them just four days to locate an emergency beacon that was lost when the tail of their spaceship tore off. With both his legs broken, Cypher has no choice but to guide his son via video link through the wilderness to retrieve their only hope for rescue.
Given that Shyamalan is one of the few directors whose films usually avoid the profanity and sexual content typical of high-profile action-adventures, it’s a shame his work seems to have grown lazier and more clichéd with each subsequent effort. Here, as in the worst of the genre, the future-based characters seem to bear no relation at all to actual living, laughing, arguing human beings. They speak to each other with a woodenness that is far more information-laden (i.e., “happy 19th birthday” rather than simply “happy birthday”) and to-the-point (“Do you think I’m a coward father?”) than natural dialogue. Most clichéd of all, though, is the heavy-handed moralizing that trades on the extreme environmental view that humans are a plague and the Earth would be better off without them.
Toward the end of the early information dump, Cypher tells Kitai that humanity’s animal hunting nearly led to the extinction of whales. The film closes with an ocean full of leaping humpbacks happy to see the last of the latest two Homo sapiens exiles to leave “their” planet. Ironically, though Cypher implies mankind has learned its lesson, he doesn’t seem the least bit bothered that his rangers are now killing off the natural inhabitants of their new home planet. Perhaps that’s because while the tiger and the alien are both man-eaters, only the tiger looks cute as a plush toy.
Either way, the green ax-grinding is as tedious as it is obtrusive, leading to another bit of wisdom Shyamalan should have picked up from sci-fi master Card: “The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted.”