I’ve lost count, but After Earth seems like it must be the fourth post-apocalyptic thriller this month. The movie teams Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, and it was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the former maestro-huckster of the twist ending. But Shyamalan’s star has fallen, and he has become a glorified gun for hire. The movie takes off from a concept as basic as a videogame, and it sticks to that concept, without surprise.
In the dystopian future, the human race has been forced to abandon a toxic earth overrun by snappy-jawed monsters that look like they came out of a Starship Troopers sequel. Will Smith plays Cypher, a military Ranger famous for his total absence of fear (that’s why he’s invincible to the monsters, who stalk their prey by smelling fear), and Jaden plays his upstart Ranger-cadet son, Kitai, who is traveling with him on an interplanetary mission. When an asteroid storm forces the ship to crash-land on earth, Cypher is badly injured, and it’s up to Kitai to travel a hundred kilometers on foot, all to retrieve a homing beacon. But his father, who can see what Kitai sees through a digital transmission, talks to him as if he were a videogame avatar, guiding the kid through his trek to manhood.
We’re not used to seeing Will Smith shorn of his lightness and humor, but in After Earth, he’s solemn and heavy-lidded, and he speaks with grave deliberation, never even using contractions. He tries to make Cypher a kind of Obi-Wan figure, and Smith is charismatic enough to pull this off, but the father-son, mentor/disciple relationship is better than the rest of the film, which is like a plate of sci-fi leftovers. The knives have been out for Jaden Smith, who is routinely dismissed by blogosphere snark as a lucky-duck celebrity offspring whose dad will do anything to make him a star. I’m someone who thinks that Jaden Smith has a lot of talent; his moody melancholy held that Karate Kid remake together. But a movie like After Earth, in which he mostly has to act all by himself, taking orders from his father as he dodges post-apocalyptic clichés, isn’t doing him any favors. C+