A father son encounter session tricked out with science fiction clich s and steeped in motivational uplift After Earth opens with a teenager Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) washing out from some kind of ranger academy. It s a bummer because all he wants to do is please his father (Will Smith Jaden s father) a heroic if unfortunately named general Cypher. Daddy Dearest has risen having honed tremendous self control and a useful protective technique ghosting which renders him invisible to the monsters plaguing human civilization the nonbearlike Ursa.
These shrieking creatures are introduced in one of those opening expositional heaves that filmmakers use to sketch in the who what when where and why oh why. In this case the back story goes after ruining Earth humans relocated to Nova Prime where they wear a lot of white and decorate their homes with flowing sailcloths. It s a nautical motif that winds though the movie which was directed by M. Night Shyamalan who wrote the script with Gary Whitta ( The Book of Eli ) from a story by Mr. Smith. There s even a nod to Moby Dick shortly before Cypher and Kitai s spaceship crashes to Earth throwing them together for the usual and less so life lessons like Root yourself in this present moment. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.
Casual students of Scientology may find their ears pricking up at those maxims because fear and its overcoming receive a lot of play in Dianetics a foundational text by the creator of Scientology the pulp science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. There are five ways in which a human being reacts toward a source of danger he wrote in Dianetics. These are also the five courses he can take on any given problem. These options are attack flee avoid neglect or succumb. Kitai would understandably like to split 1 000 years after humans abandoned Earth he and Dad have landed on a now seemingly pristine healed world teeming with cawing clawing menace and some cute baby critters. But Cypher is made of sterner righter more rational stuff.
The story kicks in slowly beat by predictable beat after a debris storm downs Kitai and Cypher s spaceship and they fall to Earth in a smashup that looks like someone decorated the set with wet toilet paper and plastic wrap. There they trade bitter words clench their jaws and hold back the tears amid long pauses and inert action scenes most involving Kitai racing through the dense woods and confronting digitally rendered animals. For the most part it is an uninteresting slog alleviated only by the occasional unintended laugh and moments of visual beauty. Mr. Shyamalan generally torpedoes his movies with overweening self seriousness. But here and there he also offers up an image as with a close up of Kitai s face dusted with glistening snowflakes that rises out of the torpor.
Those images are few and far between in a movie that loses its way long before Kitai reaches the belching volcano that leads to his inevitable destiny. Mr. Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith are producers on After Earth which suggests that there was no one on the production who could really say no to him. An often affable screen presence he spends much of the movie in a chair on the spaceship pursing his lips and watering his eyes. It s a calamitously one note unpersuasive performance that s a match to that of Jaden a pretty teenager with jumpy eyebrows whose character remains an insufferable brat. Once upon a time Hollywood parents gave their children sports cars as gifts. These days apparently nothing less than a big screen vanity project will do for Junior.
After Earth is rated PG 13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Spaceship crash alien monsters parental peril.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan written by Gary Whitta and Mr. Shyamalan based on a story by Will Smith director of photography Peter Suschitzky edited by Steven Rosenblum music by James Newton Howard production design by Tom Sanders costumes by Amy Westcott visual effects supervisor Jonathan Rothbart produced by Caleeb Pinkett Jada Pinkett Smith and Mr. Smith James Lassiter and Mr. Shyamalan released by Columbia Pictures. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH Jaden Smith (Kitai Raige) Will Smith (Cypher Raige) Zo Isabella Kravitz (Senshi Raige) Sophie Okonedo (Faia Raige) Glenn Morshower (Commander Velan) and Kristofer Hivju (Security Chief).