"After Earth" tells the story of an inexperienced boy trying desperately to please his father while making one mistake after another, and as such, it becomes an uncomfortable metaphor for itself.
Jaden Smith, who stars in the film, can at least take comfort in his predecessors – Anjelica Huston stumbled through her father John's mostly-forgotten "A Walk with Love and Death" before eventually becoming an Oscar-winning actress, and Sofia Coppola survived the global embarrassment of "The Godfather Part III" to become an acclaimed writer and director.
Granted, Will Smith isn't behind the camera here – that unhappy task has fallen to M. Night Shyamalan, who's still basically the trustee of Movie Jail after "Lady in the Water," "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender." Still, the elder Smith gets a "Story by" and executive producer credit, making "After Earth" the equivalent of a very expensive bar mitzvah, one where dad's a successful cantor and his son could have used another month in Hebrew school.
In a dystopic future, an international fighting force known as the Rangers organizes the mass exodus of a polluted, uninhabitable Earth. Humanity's new home is subjected to blind, deadly monsters known as the Ursa, and Ranger Cypher Raige (Will Smith) becomes a legend when his lack of fear makes him completely invisible to the Ursa, who track people by the scent of their fear.
Cypher's son Kitai (Jaden Smith, "The Karate Kid") wants desperately to follow in his father's footsteps, but the Rangers keep turning him down; Kitai is physically capable, but he hesitates in the field because of a childhood incident in which his older sister (Zoë Isabella Kravitz) died saving him from an Ursa.
Father and son are traveling on an interplanetary mission when their ship crash-lands on Earth. With the rest of the crew dead, and Cypher suffering massive internal injuries, it's up to Kitai to travel 100 kilometers on his own to find the back end of the ship, which contains a functioning homing beacon – as well as an Ursa that has broken out of its cage. With Cypher's stern instructions (and disapproving scolds) ringing in his ears, Kitai will have to brave this savage planet to save them both.
The relatively inexperienced Jaden Smith is asked to carry a movie in which he spends almost all of it by himself, talking to a co-star who isn't there and reacting to special effects that will be added later, which is a task akin to casting a drama club freshman in a performance of Beckett's "Happy Days." On top of that, all the actors have been instructed to speak in a clunky futuristic patois that could be described as "Southern Kennedy," but it's the sort of thing that works better on paper. (Unless you really take it all the way, like the Russian-inspired slang of "A Clockwork Orange.")
Performances aside, "After Earth" is a fairly dreary affair, weighted down with grimness it never really earns and afflicted with sub-par special effects that keep us from being completely lost inside this world. (The animals of this post-historic Earth have apparently evolved into scarier creatures, despite the fact that humans have been gone for only 1,000 years, a blip in evolutionary time.) There are occasional stirring moments – particularly when Kitai eludes a giant bird of prey while gliding in one of those flying-squirrel suits – but it ultimately feels like a slog of a vanity project.
You know you're in trouble when you find yourself feeling sorry for one of the world’s wealthiest teenagers. And you’re definitely in trouble when you wish the mess of a movie he stars in could be as entertainingly rotten as "Battlefield Earth."