In 2010, director M. Night Shyamalan released a film called The Last Airbener, adapted from a popular Nickelodeon cartoon.

The film was supposed to kick off a series, but, instead, got kicked flat in the face by the movie-going public.I mean, critics were savage with this movie the way the raptors dined upon that poor cow in Jurassic Park.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I made it 30 minutes into the film before I decided that I had better things to do with my time (homework, flossing, laundry, reading the instruction manual of the DVD player, etc.). Truth be told, it wasn’t exactly enjoyable.

And, for M. Night, it was strike three.

The movie-loving community was all but ready to give up on the former Oscar-nom, who, a little over a decade ago, had helmed one of the great twisty films of all time with The Sixth Sense. His follow-ups, Unbreakable, a personal favorite, and Signs, were also highly respected for their signature Shyamalan suspense and surprises. Unfortunately for M. Night, the streak ended.

The Village (The Village…bangs head on wall) M. Night’s 2004 tense journey into a village with a deep, dark secret, pushed the envelope too far with one of the most eye-rolling ‘gotcha’ moments in cinematic history. It chose to throw away an otherwise fair outing with a chalkboard screech of an ending.

For film critics, it was blood in the water.

I’ve never been a fan of the early Aughts effort, and it’s a big reason I avoided Shyamalan’s next two outings, The Lady in the Water and The Happening. As it goes, critics weren’t too kind to those movies, either.

Let’s say The Village is a foul ball. Lady in the Water – Strike One. Happening – Strike Two.

Shyamalan reached the end of his audience goodwill, and making the adaptation of one of the more beloved recent animated series for kids was a gamble for the next swing.

Strike three.

Enter After Earth.

Shyamalan didn’t enter the making of the new sci-fi movie, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, with a lot of audience excitement, but jokes on all of us, because the director’s newest movie is quite honestly one of 2013’s best (it’s been a rough year, folks).

Joking aside, After Earth is a pretty great movie that illuminates the talent of its director and leads.

The film takes place in a distant future (a thousand years to be exact), where mankind has bailed on Mother Earth, after, as Jaden Smith’s Kitai tells us, we pulled a Wall-e and made the place inhospitable to inhabit.

As man ventures out into the great beyond, we went to a distant planet, where the resident aliens weren’t too psyched to see us. Henceforth, the humans and aliens entered into conflict to solidify who could stay on the otherworldly grounds.

Will Smith’s Cypher Raige, a hero of the alien wars, is able to “ghost” his way past the dreaded Ursa, a genetically enhanced creature (Cloverfield’s cousin, perhaps?) that tracks its prey through emissions of fear. Cypher’s ghosting abilities allow him to remove all fear from his body, making him invisible to the rest of the gnarly monsters. He’s lauded as being the one that has put a decent ‘stopper’ on the conflict*.

*Admittedly, it sounds a little cheesy in writing, but never comes across that way onscreen.

Cypher decides that after years of battle, it’s time to throw in the towel. His wife (the always great Sophie Okonedo) urges her husband to draw closer to Kitai, his neglected offspring who has just recently been struck down from obtaining Ranger status, the sash his father wears proudly. So, dad decides to take son on a training mission. En route, their spacecraft crash lands in a freak accident, sending the two hurling down to Earth. Post-crash, Cypher’s in bad shape, and it’s up to his son to travel across the post-apocalyptic Earth to retrieve an important piece of equipment from a severed part of the ship.

I hate to do so much plotting, but I feel like this is one of those movies where you a little background might do you some good. The main complaint I have with the movie is the opening 20 or so, as I don’t feel the folks involved set the best stage possible. Lots of what happens in the opening act clears up later on in the film, but honestly, that’s my main quibble. Once you ease into the atmosphere, the film fits like a glove.

Actually, After Earth isn’t the glossed-up Hollywood product one might suspect. This film is sometimes-brutal survival flick that doubles as a closet-clearing of emotion for a critically injured father and his petrified son.

During Kitai’s journey to locate the homing device that will alert the search party of their location, Shyamalan gets to roll up his sleeves and show what he’s best at – engineering ‘jumpy’ cinema. The audience I screened the movie with adored the seldom playful tone the film tinkers with when Kitai comes across a few of Earth’s big meanies (and a small one in one of the film’s best moments). As serious as things are, After Earth never forgets to provide at least a few moments of humor. Otherwise, this would have been quite the somber affair.

But, the center of this movie is a tense battle for survival, and Shyamalan’s never afraid to let the Smiths get in some pretty rough spots. Earth’s now a planet with uneven temperatures, unreliable oxygen levels and nasty critters that see Kitai as either a threat or lunch. As much as it surprises some, Jaden Smith flat out delivers in the moments where the young traveler is in peril.

Jaden Smith has come a long way from being the little kiddo from The Pursuit of Happyness. It wasn’t until 2010’s underrated Karate Kid remake that I thought J. Smith might finally be ready to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Despite what some may tell you, this is a star-making turn for Jaden Smith. It sounds silly, but you actually hurt for young Kitai whenever he’s in danger. The film puts the poor kid through a lot, and despite the physical torment, Kitai has to deal with a scarring memory that affects the relationship with his father.

The way After Earth handles the unraveling of this memory shocked me. I didn’t expect the film to go past the ‘danger is real, fear is a choice’ sentiment (the entire monologue W. Smith delivers on the subject is the probably the best-written part of the movie), but the scripters (Shyamalan and Gary Whitta) don’t shy away from the struggling core of Cypher and Kitai’s relationship.

In the film’s emotional climax, we see father and son spar it out. It’s a scene that hits hard and solidified the idea of J. Smith’s potential as an actor. There’s nothing fake or hammy about the exchange. It’s a rare moment in a blockbuster hopeful, but it works nevertheless.

Will Smith also left me impressed with what really was a tough role to play. Cypher’s a pretty emotionless, get-the-job-done fellow, but he also cares for his son and isn’t too crazy about sending him out into the abyss for rescue. He slowly starts to melt as things get bleaker, and W. Smith aptly taps into his dramatic abilities for Cypher’s big character moments.

It’s great that Will and Jaden work so well together, and I think the fact that this is a real father and son duo adds a layer to the performances that would have been vacant in other hands.

On the tech side, the production design in this film is mightily impressive. I’m pretty picky with the way a film depicts the future, and I like the way After Earth imagined what it would be if humanity relocated to a place full of rocks. The realistic design of the spaceship and its computer system also stood out as fascinating glimpses into what could be. New Earth didn’t feature too many frills, and for the better. Instead of trying to mimic the grandiose imagination of Avatar, those involved opted for more of a subtle take on the revised planet.

On top of the solid set, James Newton Howard’s mood-setting score worked nicely as a buffer to the events onscreen.

Unfortunately, most folks won’t be fair to this film because of the other titles in Shyamalan’s lineage. A few of the reviews I’ve browsed over have made some baseless claims that don’t necessarily point out anything that’s wrong with the movie.

Honestly, I bet that a few folks were a little disappointed they didn’t get to chow down on this movie like they expected to. Sure, I love penning the occasional bad review as much as the next guy, but when a film deserves credit, I give credit to where it’s due.

In a perfect world, After Earth gets Shyamalan and J. Smith a few calls for upcoming projects. It’s an emotionally gripping tale of survival that should rise above whatever hollow cynicism already exists about the film’s existence.

It’s the homerun that Shyamalan needed to get back in the good graces of this filmgoer.

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