Lying there on the surface of this foul planet, almost paralyzed with pain and sure to die, Kitai Raige thinks back upon the most impacting moments of his relatively short life. The crash. His Academy failure. His sister's death.
He was a kid with a lot to prove. He wanted to show those around him that he was more than capable of being a first-class ranger. But that's not easy to do when you have the same last name as the great general Cypher Raige.
That particular Raige was, after all, one of the first to rid himself of all fear and thereby create the "ghosting" technique. That lauded hero could literally slip up unseen upon the deadly, pheromone-sniffing Ursa beasts and single-handedly kill them on the spot.
So how could Kitai possibly be considered exceptional when a man like that, the best of the best, was his father? How could he be anything more than just another kid with a chip on his shoulder? And that's especially true since he's pretty sure his Prime Commander father thinks he's a coward.
Kitai hoped to change that impression. After the asteroid storm hit unexpectedly and sent their transport ship crashing down on this Class 1 quarantined planet, he was determined to show his true mettle. He would make the 100 kilometer trek in the wilderness, best the beasts and the deadly elements, and find a path to safety for his badly wounded father.
But this horrible planet has gotten the better of him. It's battered him, poisoned him, slashed him, left him gasping for breath, writhing in pain and riddled with fear. This putridly lush place is proving that he's every bit the failure that his father surely thought he was. This cursed world is desperate to land its final blow, this planet his father called … Earth.
He can not let it win.
For all of his skills and military prowess (because of that, it could be argued), Cypher has a difficult time connecting with his family. He has conquered fear, but the effort has left him placid, controlled, emotionless. But it's clear that he wants to change that. He expresses his love to his wife and reports his plans to retire from military life and spend more time on the home front. She is very happy with his decision, but encourages him to not wait for that to start reaching out to Kitai. "He does not need a commanding officer," she tells him. "He needs a father."
Cypher immediately moves to put her advice into action, and through the course of the movie we see him make sometimes painful efforts to reach out, growing closer to and gaining a greater respect for his son. For his part, Kitai must learn to change too. He must grapple with his flitting emotions, overcoming their dominance (a symbolically significant teenage necessity) and to take his father's instructions to heart (every parent's hope). He must, most potently, fight down his overwhelming sense of fear. Cypher puts it this way: Danger is very real, but fear is a choice."
In the end, father and son express their mutual love and respect in hugely significant ways.
In flashback we see Kitai's older sister put him in a place of safety while she ultimately sacrifices her life on his behalf. A badly wounded soldier demands to be stood up on his one remaining leg to properly salute Cypher.
Pretty early on we learn that Earth was abandoned some 1,000 years before because mankind had destroyed the atmosphere with pollutants and the wastes of war and industry. When humans return, a millennium later, the planet has almost completely regenerated. Thus, the film subtly encourages us with this bit of "news": Our environment is a flexible, self-repairing ecosystem that will reward careful stewardship … or punish mismanagement.
Kitai has something of a dream/vision of his dead sister who tells him that he isn't to blame for her death. She wakes him when he is in danger.
A misunderstanding between Cypher and his daughter over a boy she likes triggers one mild sexual allusion ("He wants you to hold on to what!?").
A space transport ship is hit by asteroids and explosively crashes to Earth—expelling crewmembers through holes in the craft and killing everyone aboard except Cypher and his son. We see the bloody bodies of the dead laying around the wreckage.
Most of the movie then involves Kitai enduring sometimes intense and always painful-looking attacks and environmental challenges as his father impotently suffers, edging nearer and nearer to death. Indeed, Cypher's legs are both broken and he bleeds internally and externally. We see a vascular stint he's attached to his leg by cutting into his flesh to allow blood to flow through plastic tubing.
Kitai uses multiblade cutlass-like weapons to slash and hack at his beastie foes, jumping on the back of one to drive large blades repeatedly into its neck. A number of different creatures snap and lunge at the boy, including a giant eagle, a streak of snarling tigers, a troop of large screeching apes, a venomous snake and a blind, fear-sniffing, many-limbed monstrosity called an Ursa.
We see several different Ursa attacking humans and flailing them viciously around. The Ursa impale dead human bodies on the branches of several trees to shock their potential victims and make them fearful. (We see the results from a distance.) A slug-like parasite attaches itself to Kitai's hand, precipitating a nasty open wound and causing his body to go numb with its toxins. (He must hastily inject antidotes into his heart.) Later, Kitai begins to freeze, ice crystals forming on his face in rapidly dropping temperatures.
In a dream, Kitai's sister appears with the side of her face bloody. A young girl is picked up by an Ursa and slammed into a wall. (We see it multiple times in silhouette.) Ape bodies lay in a pile—all dead and bloodied, some with various limbs ripped off.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Earth's atmosphere has adapted and changed over the centuries, and Kitai must ingest regular doses of a drug designed to coat his lungs and enhance his oxygen intake. Cypher injects a strong painkiller to help him continue functioning through his severe injuries.
Director M. Night Shyamalan has received both lofty accolades and lowly raspberries for his catalog of movies (from The Sixth Sense to The Happening, and from Signs to The Last Airbender). After Earth sits somewhere in between those hurrahs and hisses.
That speaks to the starry artistic side of this visually impressive flick. As for its earthbound content? Occasionally bloody slash-with-a-blade conflicts, explosive crash-landings and perilous leap-from-the-roaring-jaws-of-death moments keep things intense, to be sure, but not really in the typical PG-13 way. (Which would mean including doses of foul language, sexual situations, drinking, etc.)
So there's a whole lotta running around and battling raging beasties … but also a "rite of passage" progression for a boy who must face (and conquer) his fears and feelings of inadequacy, and lessons to learn by a father who must relinquish control while regaining confidence in his family. That means there are some pretty positive things this sci-fi actioner has to say about the bond between dads and sons. And it lauds wise parental choices right alongside the more typical nods to bravery and self-sacrifice.