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Director dials it back in After Earth
Film-Review-After-Ear Hatc4
Jaden Smith appears in a scene from "After Earth."

‘After Earth’

Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Isabella Kravits, Lincoln Lewis

Rated: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images

Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Bottom line: Solid sci-fi thriller

There is nothing innovative or surprising about “After Earth.” It plays out a simple scenario, tells its story efficiently and doesn’t try to reach beyond the filmmaker’s abilities.

That doesn’t sound like high praise, but when the filmmaker in the previous sentence is M. Night Shyamalan, those are very kind words.

Shyamalan’s breakout “The Sixth Sense” cemented his identity as a filmmaker. Ever since then, he has been trapped by his need to replicate his one big success.

“The Sixth Sense” made Shyamalan the “big twist guy.” Each one of his movies builds to a moment when we discover something that changes the entire nature of the story.

The problem is, the ending of “The Sixth Sense” wasn’t all that surprising to begin with. It’s also very difficult to provide a genuinely earth-shattering revelation at the end of every movie. It’s even more difficult to disguise the big twist for 90 minutes while also telling a story that’s compelling without the gimmick.

Shyamalan has spent a decade making progressively worse movies.

Audiences hung with him for “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” but “The Village” began an embarrassing decline that hit its low point with the unintentionally hilarious “The Happening” and an adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” that so badly mishandles one of television’s most bankable properties that many wondered whether Shyamalan would ever get to work again.

One sign of how low Shyamalan’s stock has fallen: His name doesn’t even appear in the U.S. trailer for “After Earth.” Columbia Pictures knows he is still capable of directing a good film, but it knows just as surely that his name is a marketing liability.

Well, Shyamalan’s brand might be set for a rebound, because it appears he has finally given up his obsession with the big twist.

“After Earth” features an abundance of computer-generated imagery and effects, yet it feels like a return to basics. The scenario is simple, and for the most part, it works.

The movie is set 1,000 years in the future. Humans left Earth generations ago, driven away by environmental destruction and vicious creatures who stalk their prey by sensing the biological signs of fear (heart rate, body temperature, etc.).

To combat these ferocious predators, a class of protectors called Rangers have developed the ability to “ghost,” to control their fear in the midst of battle, rendering themselves virtually invisible.

Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is the best at ghosting. He is a legend among the people, but a neglectful father to his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), who is 13 years old and desperately needs a role model.

After an extended absence, Cypher takes Kitai on a routine interstellar trip in an effort to reconnect. Their spacecraft crashes on Earth, though, and father and son are the only survivors.

At that point, the story is clearly focused. Cypher has a broken leg and severed artery, so Kitai must go alone to retrieve an emergency beacon to signal for help. He has limited time, must survive a number of natural predators, and must overcome his own fears. If he fails, he and his father will die.

Cypher can only help remotely, “Rear Window” style, because of his leg.

The film’s scope is reduced to survival and father-son issues. Jaden Smith has plenty of growing to do as an actor, but casting a real father and son gives the movie a boost.

“After Earth” invents nothing, nor does it fall into Shyamalan’s usual traps. Even if viewers don’t like it, at least it isn’t bad in the ways that it could have been.

The movie also offers a teenage, black male action star dealing with heavy family issues who strives to do the right thing as he fights to survive. Characters like Kitai don’t make it onto movie screens nearly often enough.

“After Earth” is a predictable yet thrilling 100 minutes of entertainment that should be especially appealing to male viewers in their early teens.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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