Film Review: After Earth

Guided by his injured father, a cadet crosses a hostile planet to retrieve a spaceship beacon in a somber, soapy, only occasionally effective sci-fi adventure.

It's a cruel world out there for superstar Will Smith and his son Jaden in After Earth, this month's dystopian sci-fi morality tale. Audiences aren't likely to be kind to this slow, simplistic movie, no matter how hard director M. Night Shyamalan tries to pump up the story.

A thousand years in the future, humans have evacuated a polluted, uninhabitable Earth for a desert colony besieged by killer "Ursa" aliens who prey on "fear" pheromones. Prime Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has conquered his fear, making him invisible to the aliens. Ranger cadets practice his "ghosting" technique, hoping to kill the Ursas before they wipe out humanity.

The cold, enigmatic Cypher has a troubled relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), a failed Ranger with daddy issues and residual guilt over the alien murder of his sister Senshi (Zoë Isabella Kravitz). Several dull and awkward scenes place Cypher, Kitai and a caged Ursa on a space flight to a planet used for training exercises.

An asteroid storm destroys the spaceship, which crashes onto the surface of Earth. The Ursa escapes. Kitai and Cypher are the only human survivors, but with his leg broken and femoral artery torn, Cypher is confined to the remains of the cockpit. A space beacon will help rescue them, but it's some 60 miles away. It's up to the terrified Kitai to find and ignite the beacon.

Guided by Cypher, who is watching by camera, Kitai wanders across a rain forest, off a cliff, down a river, and into a cave, encountering baboons, a giant hawk, mutated tigers, a poisonous leech and other indifferently rendered CG creatures. Cypher can offer warnings and advice, but this is Kitai's game to win or lose.

Will Smith may as well have said, "Here's my son, make him a star." Take away the actor's best qualities—his verbal dexterity, his outsized personality—then make him immobile, and After Earth becomes a Will Smith vehicle in name only.

Jaden Smith has screen presence, but he is not an accomplished actor, no matter how hard his father wills it. His dialogue is unintelligible at times, and he seems limited to a handful of poses and emotional responses. Carrying a big-budget movie by himself at this stage in his career is asking too much.

After Earth is too blunt, too insistent in both content and technique to be called metaphorical. Will Smith helped produce, and is responsible for the story, so it's hard to place all the blame on Shyamalan and co-writer Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) for After Earth's plodding pace and kindergarten life lessons.

But Shyamalan needs to update his style, which right now seems based on old "Twilight Zone" episodes. He's like a stage hypnotist who keeps insisting, "Look out, something scary is going to happen." Computer warning screens, verbal and visual countdowns, speeches about tension and sweating, another foreboding James Newton Howard score: Shyamalan all but drags you by the hand to the film's few scares and jolts.

After Earth is by no means the disaster that The Last Airbender was. It's just not very much fun to watch.