M. Night Shyamalan built his entire career on pulling the rug out from under moviegoers, and now Columbia Pictures attempts that same feat with the marketing for After Earth, a forgettable slice of cinematic nepotism marketed solely on the star power of Will and Jaden Smith. By the time Shyamalan's directorial credit blazes across the screen like a bad plot twist in one of his own films, it's obvious that the suits at Columbia would rather you not realize this is the latest effort from the director who has spectacularly failed to live up to the promise of his mind-bending breakthrough. In fact, with its opening scenes depicting Mother Nature revolting against mankind, After Earth could almost be considered a loose sequel to Shyamalan's 2008 nature-versus-man comedy The Happening. Unlike that movie, it's feasible that After Earth could be taken seriously -- the elder Smith's consistently somber delivery and his son's perpetually furrowed brow telegraph the film's grim tone in no uncertain terms -- though a misstep in stylization, an unqualified leading man, and a predictable story prevent this effects-heavy sci-fi adventure from ever blasting off.
It's been nearly a millennium since mankind were forced to flee their home planet for the safety of Nova Prime, and in that time Earth has grown increasingly hostile to human life. General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has just finished an extended tour of duty when he reunites with his 13-year-old son Kitai (Jaden Smith) and begins making the transition from military leader to father. When an asteroid storm damages their ship, however, a badly injured Cypher and his son are forced to crash-land on Earth. Now, the only way for Kitai to save his father's life is to find the rescue beacon that was lost when their ship went plummeting through the atmosphere. But the wreckage containing the beacon is nearly 100 kilometers away, and in order to survive and locate it, Kitai must become the type of soldier who would make his father proud.
Will Smith needs to stop trying to turn his children into stars. It's only natural that a youngster raised by such famous, influential parents would strive for a taste of the golden spotlight, but it's just not happening. Simply because you have the same blood as a major talent flowing through your veins doesn't necessarily mean you're entitled to the same kind of success they've achieved. Sure, Jaden might walk the walk, but watch out when he tries to talk the talk, because despite the stylized dialogue cooked up by screenwriters Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), his horrendous line delivery and complete lack of emotional range stifle any of the hopelessly unimaginative screenplay's contrived father/son drama. A virtual vacuum of charisma, young Jaden seems to greedily suck all of the life force out of his father as the pair work together to try to escape their godforsaken home world. The elder Smith may have a story credit here, but After Earth is not only a laughably obvious attempt to keep his son relevant, but a by-the-numbers survival story that never manages to surprise or excite. Even when faced with a hostile alien who can smell human fear, is there ever any real doubt that Kitai will summon his inner courage and save the day? The answer, of course, is "no." If Shyamalan, Whitta, and Smith had any interest in telling a genuinely involving story, perhaps they would have thrown in a few other characters to keep things moving along, or at least stay consistent with Cypher's claim that he can "see everything" as his son sets out on his own; alas, laziness prevails in a plot where substance and subtext are of little concern.
On a positive note, production designer Tom Sanders (Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypto) provides a sleek, minimalistic vision of the future that transports us to a time when mankind live an itinerant existence in deep space, and the creative costume designs by Amy Westcott (Black Swan) compliment that motif handsomely. Yet After Earth is still a wholly unremarkable film and an embarrassingly transparent attempt by Will Smith to pass the torch of fame to his son Jaden. It's the kind of sugarcoated tripe that not only cheapens the sci-fi genre as a whole, but also the reputations of everyone involved.