The start of “After Earth” does seem like it’s trending in the way of modern blockbuster visual vocabulary. The threadbare story, which ends up being something of a virtue, strands us in a future where the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a series of events (perhaps you could collectively call them… “The Happening”) that have forced our civilization to desert planet Nova Prime. We fight for land against a race of aliens with a generic war-bound classification that immediately escapes memory once we learn that our protagonists are a bodaciously named father and son duo, Cypher and Kitai Raige.
People who take movies seriously really shouldn’t bring too much baggage into a film, but it’s impossible to avoid the real world parallel with Smith and his son: Father Fresh Prince has slowly moved away from the big screen in recent years, while his son led a remake of “The Karate Kid” to massive worldwide grosses. Cypher is a military father, prone to speaking in clipped, curt phrases that challenge Kitai not to be discouraged, but to always do better, and given Will Smith’s laser-like precision on being a massive global star since “Independence Day,” there’s evidence to suggest the passing-of-the-torch elements of “After Earth” are carried over from actual conversations in the Smith household.
Duty calls when Cypher encounters yet another off-world mission that will take him away from the family, but this time he opts to take Kitai along in order to bond. But a malfunction forces the ship to land on a planet no longer safe for humans, one that upon first glance seems more than a little familiar to viewers. The landing is harsh and claims the lives of all on-board save for father and son, who must band together to find the ship’s necessary tech miles away on this savage land. Except for one curious development that leaves action hero Big Willie Styles on the sidelines: both of Cypher’s legs are badly broken, and he’s stuck to a chair, with the legwork now the responsibility of under-prepared Kitai.
It’s during these moments when fatherhood becomes a matter of coaching, with Cypher heard by radio as Kitai scrounges over inhospitable lands following dad’s instructions. A ticking clock is provided by Kitai clutching a finite amount of oxygen pills (Earth’s air is now a danger despite the amount of animals still alive), with the bulk of “After Earth” becoming a survivalist action picture not unlike something like “The Naked Prey,” constant motion interrupted by periods of exhaustion and studied recalibration of coordinates. It’s not necessarily a showcase for young Jaden Smith as an actor as much as an athlete as he follows the map system programmed into his “Tron”-like bodysuit. As Cypher, Will seems to be doing a Sidney Poitier impersonation, not necessarily instructing his son as much as dispensing motivational koans and non-controversial mantras. The film progresses to the point where it feels less like father and son, and more like a young boy listening to an inspirational audiobook.
Shyamalan seems enthused by the opportunity to let young Jaden command the screen not as a personality (he’s lacking in that department, still in the awkward phase for teenagers with strong features from mother and father), but as a force of nature. Without much dialogue, Shyamalan captures not necessarily an adventurous spirit (“After Earth” tends towards the boring end of the spectrum more often than not), but the idea of restless exploration, the idea that Kitai finds another gear simply through having his own terrain to explore. It would be an intoxicating idea had Shyamalan either committed towards Kitai finding a passionate enjoyment of these exploits (poor Jaden doesn’t once smile during this film) or found a way to embrace the plot elements that drag this sedentary film from act to act, ending in a CGI monster brawl that reminds us exactly why we grade these types of movies on a curve in the first place. [C]