CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND SADNESS
I'm going out on an incredibly wobbly limb here, but I do feel the need to defend M Night Shyamalan more than is strictly reasonable. I will concede, gladly, that he's not the best writer in the world: he tends to have terrific ideas, which he turns into terrible screenplays, and then directs those terrible screenplays rather well. I'll also concede that Signs doesn't hold water (sorry), but it's got some terrific scenes in it. Same with The Village. I do think The Happening has a great little premise at its centre, and I maintain Lady In The Water is underrated (it's a kids' movie, not a grown-ups' movie). True, The Last Airbender was a long way from being any good, but I defy anyone to have done much better with a concept that silly. But Unbreakable was great, and Devil was perfectly decent (note that he only came up with the back-of-a-fag-packet idea and someone else wrote the script and directed it).
But with all the good will in the world, it's hard to defend Shyamalan when he comes up with a film as ludicrous, and as dull, as After Earth. Centuries after Mankind has buggered Earth's environment to the point where the planet is uninhabitable, and humanity has legged it to other planets, Will Smith is an elite Ranger who can "ghost": he can hide his fear so he cannot be detected by the huge-ass space monsters that are wiping humanity out. For all his bravery and badassery, however, he's an absent father who doesn't know how to talk to his son (Jaden Smith). Through ridiculous circumstance, their ship crashes on the now deserted Earth; Dad's legs are broken and the whiny kid has to make the hundred-kilometre trek through the jungle to the back half of the shipwreck so he can set off the distress beacon. Unfortunately the fear monster got loose in the crash as well....
So it's a father-son bonding movie, a rites of passage movie about Jaden's initiation into manhood, a drama about a kid living up to his arsehole father's expectations and becoming the Ranger Cadet of his dreams. But Will Smith is left bleeding in a chair for most of the film and the dramatic focus is on Jaden, and frankly he's not up to the job. Mainly he's too young: he's now about the age where he should be remaking The Karate Kid, and he shouldn't be doing something like After Earth for another three years at least. He's only fifteen (today, as it happens) and can't give it the depth it needs if we're supposed to stick with him for most of the movie. And the film has no surprises to offer: you know exactly what's going to happen and there's no sign of a cunning twist at the end - which is Shyamalan's patented gimmick and he's not even bothering to play that card any more.
There's no reason why it's set on a future jungle Earth anyway - it's not like Jaden suddenly wanders into what's left of Bilbao railway station or Cineworld Milton Keynes; it could be set on planet Zog 3 for all it matters to the film. But since it is Earth: where have all the giant birds, mutated plants and other monsters come from? The movie isn't set millions of years hence when these other species have had a chance to evolve.
It's humourless, it's charmless, it's soulless, it lacks an interesting and charismatic central character to hang the drama on. Oh, it looks nice, and it sounds nice, thanks to David Cronenberg's regular cinematographer Peter Suschitsky and Shyamalan's own regular composer James Newton Howard, and the visual effects and design are mostly terrific. But technical pluses don't come close to outweighing the vast dramatic deficit. It would be great if Shyamalan was to return to darker, smaller and creepier - and better - movies like Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense instead of splashy empty A-list twaddle like After Earth and The Last Airbender; he's obviously better than this.