The ugly truth about the latest Will Smith film (he even gets a sole "Story by..." credit) is that it's not that bad, which is to say it's completely possible to sit through its 100 minutes and not want to tear your eyes out. It's certainly a good-looking movie, with some interesting future tech on display, and in a couple of scenes, director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan even gives us a sense of how things work. I'll admit, when I heard the idea of AFTER EARTH, I was intrigued. I like the idea of this big-scale science-fiction film that was really just about two characters trying to survive a couple of brutal days on a planet they know little about—Earth.
As the film begins, we soon discover that the father-son relationship between Cypher Raige (Smith, the elder) and son Kitai (Jaden Smith from THE KARATE KID remake) is strained. Dad is basically king of the Rangers, the military-like branch that protects the human population forced to relocated when cataclysmic events pushed earthlings off the planet about 1,000 years ago and apparently gave everyone weird accents that come and go.
Even though young Kitai has not formally passed his test to become a Ranger, Cypher takes him out on a mission anyway, one that includes traveling in a ship with a captured space alien on board, one of a race that has been tormenting humans since they left Earth. The ship crashes thanks to a renegade asteroid belt, and the ship just happens to fall in pieces back on Earth, which is loaded with evolved wild animals, all bent on eating humans.
Cypher is injured so badly that he's forced to stay on the half of the ship he and his son landed in, but in order to retrieve a rescue beacon, Kitai has to go seek out the other half of the craft. He has limited supplies, means of breathing on the poisoned planet, and all manner of creatures to take a bite out of him. So armed with mounted camera (so dad can see his actions back on the ship), Kitai heads out with dad advising him along the way.
Up to this point, I'm still with AFTER EARTH, although I'm not happy with the idea of sidelining Will Smith in a film that is clearly going to feature a great deal of action. But what's odd about this movie is that is was clearly conceived as an audition reel for Jaden, so he might get other jobs. And the kid can take a tumble or do a summersault, so I'm sure one day he'll made daddy proud and be an action hero too.
But he's also required to act in this film, displaying a great deal of emotion as he remembers back to a time when his sister (Zoe Kravitz, who has added the middle name Isabella to her credit for some reason) was alive and protected him from an alien attack as she sacrificed her life. This memory has kept Kitai in perpetual fear, something a Ranger can never show since the aliens are blind and can smell fear on a person. Jaden's main means of expression seems to be yelling. Okay, but there's more to emoting than kicking and screaming, and like nearly every film with kids in it these days, the parents tell them to do something, but they think they know better, so they do something else.
AFTER EARTH's biggest problem is that it's tedious and predictable. And its potential for drama is undercut by the fact that we know without a shadow of a doubt that Will and Jaden's characters will not die. It just wouldn't make any sense for the filmmakers to kill them off, so what's the real threat here? There's something appealing to me about the idea of this being a bonding experience between father and son, but somehow the one aspect of this film that should have worked beyond any doubt utterly fails to gel emotionally. I couldn't get it out of my head that Cypher only cared about his son's well being because the boy's success meant Cypher got to live. At one point, Cypher makes a call about the mission's future as a father, not as his superior officer, and I never once bought Will Smith's almost robotic declaration of affection for his son.
Sure, it was kind of neat to see what the filmmakers' vision of Earth 1,000 years from now was like. Larger, more evolved wildlife threaten Kitai at every turn. There are functional ideas at play here, but the key family drama at the center of this story falls so flat as to virtually tank the rest of the film. The pieces for a decent sci-fi adventure story combined with a family drama were all there, and I was eager to see that film. But thanks to some really stagnant writing and Will Smith lacking any manner of charisma (seriously, he's so dialed back, he's almost transparent), AFTER EARTH just sits there on the screen, daring us to give a shit.