Truth be told, After Earth wouldn’t exist had Will Smith not cooked it up as yet another star vehicle for his son, Jaden. But since buying your kid a movie credit is a tradition that dates back to the beginnings of Hollywood, you can’t hold that against it.
This sci-fi adventure about a boy who must become a man to save himself and his wounded warrior father on a hostile world is a corny, generally humorless M. Night Shyamalan picture without his trademark surprises and twists. It’s a straightforward quest in which incapacitated Dad (Will) sends guilt-ridden, fearful teen son Kitai (Jaden) off to fetch a rescue beacon that broke free of the spaceship they just crashed in.
This is Earth, a thousand years after we’ve abandoned it. The buffalo and trees and vast migrating flocks of birds are back.
There are beasts in the primeval forest Kitai must cross — ferocious digital baboons and digitized tigers and killer digital condors. A digital monster named Ursa was being transported in the space ship. It’s on the loose, too, tracking Kitai’s “fear.” There are rivers to cross and waterfalls and high cliffs he must fly from. The oxygen is thin, the hot days yield to frigid nights that could kill him.
And every step of the way, Dad is sitting in front of holographic monitors, slowly bleeding out, “teaching” and leading his son every step of the way.
Most of Dad’s lectures are about controlling and mastering fear. But in odd moments, father and son hallucinate the layers of their strained relationship, the incident that scarred Kitai for life and that he fears his father blames him for. Sophie Okonedo plays the mom who insisted her would-be Ranger boy go off with legendary Ranger dad for bonding and adventure. Zoe Kravitz — yes, she was born into the business, too — plays the boy’s sister.
A Will Smith action film that has him grimacing on his back, giving instructions, is nobody’s idea of a lot of fun. Jaden, a good-looking kid with a hint of charisma, has to carry the film and doesn’t have the presence to pull that off. And inexplicably, father and son have attempted Southern accents from over a thousand years in the future. Epic enunciation fail.
The digitally augmented scenery is striking and a couple of the action beats work. Jaden isn’t an awful actor. But there’s little here to separate him from a hundred peers who could have played this role as well, if not as prettily. Focusing on him, the movie feels a lot more Karate Kid than Will Smith action picture. Since Shyamalan’s last film was the insipid Last Airbender, perhaps that’s the standard to judge it by — an undemanding, childish adventure picture for kids starring kids whose parents happen to be show business folk.