Movie review: Sci-fi “After Earth” renders Earth theaters uninhabitable

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From the June 6, 2013 edition

Here’s a setup for a disaster movie: A thousand years after an environmental disaster causes mankind to abandon Earth, a spaceship crash-lands on the planet leaving a father and son to fight for their lives.

Here’s a setup for another disaster movie: Will Smith hatches an idea for a movie starring himself and his son, Jaden, and tags M. Night Shyamalan to direct.

Fooled you! It’s the same movie!

Look, there are self-indulgent movie projects … and then there’s “After Earth,” a decidedly dull hodgepodge of sci-fi cliche that should have just been a really expensive Smith family home movie.

Employing some of the same muddled exposition he perfected in “The Last Airbender,” Shyamalan sets up the dystopian world Will Smith envisioned in a ham-handed intro. It’s a sign of bad things to come.

A thousand years after humans relocated from Earth to a new planet called Nova Prime, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) heads The Ranger Corps, a peacekeeping group who protects humankind’s new home from scary aliens who hunt based on fear.

Cypher’s son Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith, and what the hell is up with these names?) is training to become a ranger, but he’s been unable to rise above the rank of cadet. When their spaceship is damaged in an asteroid storm, it crash-lands on a now-quarantined Earth, which, we are told, has somehow evolved to be even less hospitable to human life. Conveniently (for the movie, not the crew), everyone on the ship dies except for Kitai and Cypher. Equally conveniently (for father-son bonding, not him), both of Cypher’s legs are broken, and he must guide his son via radio to retrieve a transmitter that will get them home.

How bad is “After Earth”? It’s like a less-interesting “Battlefield Earth” without all the camera tilting. And when I say less-interesting, I mean there isn’t even cheesy bad movie appeal here.

Look, when you’re as powerful as Will Smith is in Hollywood, you can get a movie made mostly to showcase your son. Jaden isn’t epically bad here, but it’s clearly not his acting chops that got him the role.

And if you’re waiting for an M. Night Shymalan signature twist, don’t bother. He’s making some of the worst movies of his career now. His bag of tricks seems pretty empty.