There will probably be worse movies than "After Earth" this summer, but not another on this scale.
A big movie with a big star and a big budget, it's also a big, big mess. Conceived by Will Smith as a family-bonding adventure flick for him and his real-life son Jaden, the story evolved into a science-fiction epic, with a silly script of ludicrous proportions, in which both Smiths are hopelessly stranded, like bugs in the proverbial amber.
A quick overview of the plot (minus spoilers) is in order, if only as a warning to potential ticket buyers:
After the Earth has been nearly destroyed yet again by pollution, mankind has settled on a distant world named Nova Prime where he battles the Ursa, aliens that look (naturally) like big bugs. The hero of the anti-alien troops is Cypher Raige (action-star Will Smith) whose secret weapon is his ability to suppress all fear, which the Ursa are able to sniff like pheromones. (All of this is covered in an extremely fuzzy prologue.)
The toughest of the tough, Cypher comes back home after his latest triumph to reconnect with his adolescent son Kitai (Jaden Smith) who has some problems with guilt regarding the death of his older sister (Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny). Cypher's efforts to bond with his son involve a space journey somewhere or other for some reason or other, none of which is important since they end up crashing (somehow) on Earth. For the rest of the movie, Kitai wanders around to find a distant rescue signal while his injured dad is confined to the wrecked ship.
Having survived man's pollution, Earth has evolved quite well on its own, breeding all sorts of deadly computer-generated creatures that are out to get the nervous Kitai. To make matters even worse, one of the Ursa is also on the prowl, the sole survivor of the crash in addition to the Smith boys. So it's up to Kitai to overcome his fear, survive his mini-odyssey, combat the Ursa and save Dad.
Handpicked by ex-Fresh Prince Smith to direct "After Earth" is the unfortunate M. Night Shyamalan, one of the hottest writer/directors in Tinseltown after "The Sixth Sense" (1999) and "Signs" (2002). Since those monstrous hits, however, the filmmaker has been struggling, hitting his nadir with "The Last Airbender" (2010). The good news for Shyamalan fans is that the new film is better than the last one, but (now for the bad news) not by much.
Though he contributed to the loopy script by Gary Whitta ("The Book of Eli"), Shyamalan is not the main problem with "After Earth." Will Smith must claim that honor since his is the guiding vision and impetus behind the movie. It's nice that the superstar would want to make a father-son flick, relegating the star status to Jaden, but the elder Smith apparently forgot that audiences would rather see him right now doing the butt-kicking and wise-cracking, neither of which is much in evidence in "After Earth." Instead, Jaden is left to carry the bulky baggage of the action and drama on his diminutive shoulders, a feat well beyond the resources of the ridiculous script and Shyamalan's uninspired direction.
Younger viewers might be wowed for a bit by the special effects, including a giant bird that alternately attacks and then befriends young Kitai, but more seasoned moviegoers will probably be unable to overlook the glaring plot holes and overt sentimentality that clutter the script. By the time the story plods to the climactic battle between Kitai and the Ursa — on a volcano, no less — what few surprises there are have been well exhausted amid the customary special effects.
Science-fiction fans and moviegoers both were well-served by Tom Cruise's "Oblivion" several weeks ago. By comparison, "After Earth" is an ineffectual wannabe.