The movie opens with the dramatic scene of a ship in crisis. Cyper Raige (Will Smith) attempts to calm his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith). Suddenly, the fuselage tears and Cypher is pulled off screen. Kitai is next seen on the forest floor, apparently injured. In voiceover, he explains that Earth was a paradise until we polluted and destroyed it. Humanity was sent to other worlds in huge ships. However, an aggressive alien species was competing for the same worlds. They deployed creatures, called ursas, that tracked human by the scent of fear pheromones. Cypher Raige, an emotionally cold leader, masters the ability to control his fear and "ghost" himself, becoming invisible the the ursa's heightened sense of smell.
A title card reads "Three days earlier," and we see Kitai running a course with other rangers/cadets. He pushes himself more than he needs to and leads the pack by a wide margin. Unfortunately, though his "studies" are exceptional, his commander refuses to advance him to ranger, claiming that he falls apart in the field. Kitai pleads that his father is returning from a mission, and it's critical that he is a ranger when Cypher arrives. The commander gently refuses Kitai's request and wishes his father a welcome home.
Cut to Kitai at home with his mother, Faia (Sophie Okonedo). Kitai relates that he is not a ranger. His father, barely masking his disappointment, says that the commander knows best and that his judgement is sound. Kitai can barely contain his anger over his dad's lack of support and prepares to leave the table only to be told to sit down. During the exchange, it is clear that Kitai is blaming himself for the death of someone (we find out later it's his older sister, SenshiZoe Kravitz). Later, Faia tells her husband that his son needs him. He's going on one last off-world mission before retiring. Faia convinces him to use the time to bond with his son. He agrees and tells Kitai to pack his bags.
In the boarding station, a wounded ranger approaches General Raige. His leg was lost in battle, but the General saved his life along with several other rangers. He struggles to salute the general in a show of respect. It impresses Kitai that his father inspires such loyalty. Kitai also notices a bizarre object being loaded into the cargo bay. His curiosity is piqued. During the trip, Cypher seems to mellow out a bit and encourages his son to catch some rest. Once everyone is snoring. Kitai goes exploring and stumbles into a restricted area. He is confronted by a ranger who asks why he ignored the clear warnings. Kitai is undeterred and wants to know what the cargo is. A second ranger tells the first that this is the Supreme Commander's son, and they decide to test him. The cargo is an ursa that they are transporting to help other rangers to "ghost." Cutting back to Cypher, he is startled into consciousness. He senses something is wrong and presses his ring against the hull, detecting an odd tremor. He also guesses that Kitai is where he shouldn't be. Calmly walking to the restricted area, he tells Kitai to get back to his seat and secure himself. The rangers whip themselves into shape and instantly respond to his orders.
Cypher heads to the cockpit to inform the pilots of his concerns. He inquires about "asteroid storms" and his suspicions that graviton readings indicate they might be in for trouble. After initially disputing his opinion, a sudden explosion puts them into the heart of an asteroid field which is pelting the ship. He tells the pilots to go into hyperspace to protect the ship. They express concern, but it's pretty clear that they're dead if they don't do something. They jump the ship and emerge in orbit around a large planet. A computer warning indicates that the planet is under quarantine. They CANNOT LAND HERE. Cypher realizes where they are, and orders another jump, but the ship simply can't manage it. He begrudgingly orders them to set down, and we see the ship heating up as it hits the atmosphere.
Cypher makes it back to Kitai, who is FREAKING OUT. We're back to the scene that opens the movie. This time we see the whole sequence. The ship is basically disintegrating. People getting pulled into the slipstream, whole pieces of the hull disappearing, then impact. Kitai was buckled in and appears to be OK. However, he quickly notices that the atmosphere is not breathable. He slips his mask back on until he can seal the hull (by removing a dead crewman). He searches around until he finds his father, apparently the only other survivor. However, Cypher is badly injured. After discovering that the beacon in the cockpit is damaged, Cypher explains that Kitai must retrieve and launch the beacon from the tail of the ship. Of course, it's more than 100 kilometers away on a planet that has evolved to kill humans. Not for nothing, there MAY be an ursa roaming around out there too. SIDE NOTE: The new technology seems to be much more organic than previous Earth tech. This isn't a major plot point, but it was interesting to see how humans apparently evolved in their thinking about how to be more "green" in their thinking.
After Kitai performs a self-check, Cypher lays out the plan. He has six cartridges that will allow Kitai to more efficiently process the limited oxygen in the atmosphere. That should be more than enough for him to reach the tail and launch the beacon. He's got a special suit and weapon and wrist communicator that will allow Cypher to monitor and guide him. It won't be easy, but if Kitai fails, they'll both die. So get to it! Almost as soon as Kitai is gone, we see that Cypher was dramatically underplaying his injuries. He's opened the artery in his thigh and requires a shunt to keep him alive. Frankly, he would have bleed out in a couple of minutes with a wound that severe, but we get it. The clock is ticking.
Oh, by the way, the planet has wild temperature fluctuations, so Kitai has to make it to geothermic "hot spots" to keep from freezing to death on his trip. So ANOTHER clock is ticking. Cypher sends out a bunch of probes to get the lay of the land and track the ursa. Kitai freaks out when a tarantula crawls on his hand providing the first big laugh. Cypher asks him to self-evaluate and Kitai notices that he "feels heavier." Earth gravity is stronger than on Nova Prime (his homeworld). After scaling a peak and getting a good look around, Kitai is clearly impressed. It's beautiful. Not for long though. Cypher is tracking a predator and Kitai needs to move... NOW (the suit changes colors to indicate a nearby threat). A feral baboon has Kitai cornered. Cypher advises him to stand down, but Kitai ignores him. Impulsively, he throws a rock to frighten the animal, but this only incites the beast to call for backup. Soon, Kitai is being chased through the forest by a wild pack of animals. Cypher directs him to a stream, which stymies the baboons, but also exposes Kitai to a leech who introduces a deadly toxin into his system.
Instantly, Kitai's suit changes to a distress color, and he begins to lose control of his body as his nervous system shuts down. Feverishly, Cypher guides him through a two-step anti-toxin protocol that saves his life. The downside is that his body shuts down completely while the venom is purged from his system. When Kitai finally regains consciousness, the temperature is dropping quickly, and he needs to find shelter. He makes it to the hotspot and asks his father how he overcame his fear. Cypher relates how he was attacked by an ursa and was held underwater. He thought the beast was trying to drown him, but eventually realized that it could no longer "see" him, now that his scent was masked. This is the "Danger is real, fear is a choice," speech. Kitai is comforted.
When Kitai wakes, he discovers that two of his remaining "breathing capsules" have been damaged in his escapade with the baboons. He lies to his father, claiming that he has the full four. Cypher isn't buying it, but isn't ready to call of the mission. Yet. Interspersed with the action, we see flashbacks of Senshi, Kitai's older sister. Their house was attacked by an ursa, and she hid Kitai in a sealed terrarium to prevent his scent from drawing the monster. She was killed, and Kitai clearly blames himself (and suspects his father blames him too). Which leads us to water falls. Cypher asks his son about the breathing capsules, insisting that he show them to the monitoring camera. He runs a simulation that indicates more than 3 days journey climbing down the mountain. The trip could be made more efficiently if Kitai were to skydive down, but Cypher is unwilling to risk it and orders Kitai back to the ship (presumably to die together). Kitai is devastated and they begin to argue. He wants to press forward, but Cypher is resolute. Instinctively, he understands that diving down will make the trip possible and he leaps off the cliff. This draws the attention of a huge condor who tracks him in a thrilling aerial sequence resulting in Kitai's capture and the destruction of his communicator.
Awaking in the condor's nest, he is greeted by the gentle pecks of condor babies. The mother condor has taken him in as one of her own. Suddenly, the nest is under attack by some oversized tigerish felines who, despite the best efforts of Kitai and mama condor, slaughter all her babies. Realizing that he's lost contact with his dad he sets off on his mission to find the tail. As freezing time approaches, he follows some wild boars into a cave. Of course, the cave has a freaky flying cobra that snacks on a piglet. Meanwhile, Kitai remembers his father's instructions and maps out a potential route to the tail. He knows he's pretty close and simply has to finish the mission.
Come morning, he assembles a raft and sets it adrift downstream. While he sleeps, he dreams of his sister, who comforts him. She asks if he's scared. He says he's tired. Senshi comments that it's good that he's replaced fear with something else. Abruptly, Senshi changes her tone. She REALLY wants him to wake up while Kitai wants to remain in the dream. It's only when her face transforms to an ursa-savaged corpse that he snaps out of it. The chill is descending rapidly, and he has to find shelter. As he stumbles of the raft, we can see the indications of the temperature drop. His suit changes to the distress color again, and he falls down just as he sees some birds flying into shelter. But his body has just given up. He's a goner for sure. Then, something drags him away from the open conditions and into a makeshift shelter. He wakes suddenly, realizing that he's been saved. It's mama condor! He tries to thank the bird only to realize that she gave her life to protect the last of her "children." Her sacrifice inspires him to move on, and he spies a piece of the broken tail section. He can see it! With the last of his breathing capsule failing, Kitai makes it to the tail. He stumbles upon a cache of the capsules sucks a couple down. Rummaging through the wreckage, he finds the beacon, a replacement weapon and a new communicator.
Unfortunately, ionic interference in the atmosphere makes communication with Cypher a one-way street. Kitai can't hear his dad, though dad can monitor him. Also, the beacon can't get a signal through the interference either. He needs a higher vantage point to punch the signal through. Kitai is frustrated and starts tearing through the wreckage. He sees the broken ursa cocoon and realizes it's on the loose. It's not fair. Then, almost as if he knows what his father would say, he calms down and assesses the situation. He realizes that he needs to get above the interference layer and that the nearby volcano is where he's got to go. Meanwhile, Cypher has gotten progressively worse. A jerry-rigged shunt has failed, and he's LITERALLY on his last legs. So, OBVIOUSLY it's time for the ursa to appear.
Kitai heads for the mountain. On the way, he discovers the dead body of a ranger. All of them WEREN'T killed in the crash, but the ursa has tracked and killed all the survivors. Now it's tracking him, and all Cypher can do is watch until the inevitable happens. Kitai ducks into a cave, but the ursa has his scent. It attacks, mildly injuring Kitai with a wound reminiscent of his father's injury. A much smaller figure than the ursa's usual prey, Kitai is able to wrangle himself through tight spots where the ursa can't manage. He's got to get to the peak to set off that beacon! He crawls up a narrow shaft only to have the ursa grabs his leg. He wrestles free and climbs out of the crevice. Moments later the ursa leaps from the rocks and grabs him/ Kitai is battered and in the midst of his pain, has a moment of zen. He remembers his father's story, he remembers Senshi's sacrifice... and replaces his fear with resolve. The ursa is confused, no longer "seeing" Kitai's fear. Bursting with adrenaline, Kitai engages in a bullfight with the monster, disabling it bit by bit until he kills it with a double-bladed coup de grace on the edge of a cliff. His father sees the whole exchange by way of Kitai's monitor which fell off during the battle. Kitai grabs the beacon and activates it as Cypher slips away.
Defying theoretical physics, the beacon reaches an outpost and an extraction team arrives to save them both. Kitai is uncertain of his father's fate. He tentatively walks past an attendant who is viewing Kitai's EPIC battle from the communication pack recordings. A team of doctors hover over Cypher's unmoving body. Then, his hand brushes them away as he asks them to help him stand. In a callback to the departure scene, Cypher rises to salute his son who rushes to hug him. Father and son agree that they would much rather follow Faia in her low stress work environment. Senshi had told her father that she was reading a REAL COPY of the novel Moby Dick. It was a recurring theme throughout the film. In the closing shot, the shuttle gracefully glides over a pod of mutant whales. Credits roll.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Cypher Raige is an emotionally cold, military leader whose relationship with his son, Kitai, is fractured by the violent death of his daughter. In an attempt to bond with his son, they travel together only to be marooned on Earth, which had been abandoned after centuries of environmental havoc. Now, with his injured father helping him from the damaged ship, Kitai must retrieve a beacon 100 kilometers away on a hostile planet with ravenous beasts, freakish weather patterns and a monster that can smell his fear. Kitai succeeds, saving the day and earning his father's love and respect.
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