The Fifth Flop: Shyamalan's dull "After Earth" never takes off

After Earth (2013)
100 min., rated PG-13.

In "After Earth," Jaden Smith not only gets top billing over his father, Will Smith, but also director M. Night Shyamalan (perhaps you've heard of him). Shyamalan's name used to be a selling point, synonymous with movies that were sold as events and delivered a doozy of a twist ending. For every "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and "Signs," there have been setbacks such as the disappointingly silly "The Village," the absurdly self-serious "Lady in the Water," the ultimately laughable "The Happening," and the spectacularly bad "The Last Airbender." He's still having an off day with his latest, "After Earth," which isn't the death knell of sci-fi adventures nor the nadir of Shyamalan's diminished career. Instead of being profoundly ruminative or outlandishly fun, it's just a solemnly dull amalgam that makes you think of other, better movies while watching this one.

A thousand years into the future, Nova Prime is the new human settlement after Earth has been left an uninhabitable threat to humankind. Kitai Raige (played by the new Fresh Prince, Jaden Smith) is a cadet training to be a ranger but doesn't advance the day his stern father, commanding officer Cypher (Will Smith), returns home. Junior doesn't want to let Dad down and Dad is more of a disciplinarian than a parent, so mother and wife Faia (a lovely, soulful Sophie Okonedo) encourages them to bond and go on a mission together before the patriarch retires. When a meteor shower damages the spacecraft, causing it to crash land on Earth, there are only two survivors: father and son. With Cypher unable to walk but lending an extra set of eyes as a guide, Kitai must throw fear aside and travel through harsh terrain to retrieve a beacon from the tail of the ship. 

Written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, from a story idea by co-star/producer Will Smith, "After Earth" is videogame-simplistic in its storytelling. Case in point: Kitai must get from A to B, with a kit of antidotes and inhalers, or else Cypher will die. That would be perfectly okay had the journey compensated with pulse-pounding excitement and imagination, but the film has neither. There is one potentially interesting avenue that the film incessantly harps on and spells out in clunky fashion. According to Cypher, "Fear is not real; it is a product of the thoughts you create. Danger is very real, but fear is a choice." While Dad has mastered the method of "ghosting" (suppressing your fear), Kitai has to follow in the same footsteps to defeat the dangers on Earth. Yes, (unconvincingly) computerized baboons, tigers, and a giant condor attack on separate occasions, and the land freezes at night, but none of these occurrences pose palpable danger within the viewer. If "Oblivion" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" could deliver seamless VFX, why couldn't this one? A series of flashbacks regarding a family trauma with Senshi (Zoe Isabella Kravitz, daughter of Lenny), Cypher's 19-year-old daughter/Kitai's sister, build to the climactic showdown between Kitai and the "Ursa," a hideous alien creature that can sniff out fear from their human prey's pheromones. This penultimate sequence comes close to giving the film its second wind with some semblance of tension, but it's a case of too little, too late.

Stepping back to let his son go to work, an uncharacteristically humorless Will Smith gets saddled with a monotonous blank of a character (no wonder he's called Cypher) and remains sidelined with his lips pursed. 14-year-old Jaden Smith tenderly played off his father in "The Pursuit of Happyness" when he was 8 and then worked well with Jackie Chan in the remake of "The Karate Kid." Here, he's mostly on his own, responding to visual effects of animals that aren't added until post, and isn't quite up for shouldering a feature film. Jaden may be a callow actor but he's shown charisma before and surely has talent in his DNA. The character of Kitai forces the actor to flounder, speaking in a flat, unintelligible British-y accent ("Sir" is "Suh") and shed some crocodile tears when trying to prove himself to his father. Giving us very little to latch onto, a film about humans keeping their emotions in check shouldn't void emotion altogether. (Strange exception: A condor provides more empathy than either of the leads.) As a result, the uncoddled father-son relationship feels dramatically inert, anticlimactic, and distant even by the end. 

The production design isn't cruddy or spectacular but merely fine. Besides glimpses of hammocks and bamboo poles, the futuristic society of Nova Prime isn't fully realized, never giving us enough time to drink in the sights. It's ironic that the film feels rushed in its visuals but moves its story at such a logy pace of stasis. Back to the Shyamalan factor: "After Earth" looks like it could have been made by anyone. The filmmaker at least doesn't go back to the well of a shocker ending (no, Cypher is not a robot), however, that might've helped pull the writing out of the mire. Some pundits have compared the film's thematic importance to an allegory for Scientology, but really, this cigar is just a cigar. With both Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as Jaden's uncle Caleeb, being producers on the film, there is an air of nepotism to this Smith-powered vehicle. Even if that feeling became too distracting to bear, "After Earth" still has few to no moments of efficacy, resulting in an underwhelming blip on your summer-movie guide's radar.

Grade: C -