‘After Earth’ movie review


Jaden Smith stars with father Will in “After Earth,” which the family would be better off not discussing around the dinner table. (Claudette Barius/Columbia Pictures)
May 30, 2013

Will Smith fans who have been eagerly awaiting their hero’s next rock ’em, sock ’em action ad­ven­ture will have to wait a little bit longer. Sequels to “Hancock,” “Bad Boys” and “I, Robot” will take up much of the actor’s time for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, Smith’s character in “After Earth” spends most of the new sci-fi flick flat on his back, with two broken legs.

It’s an odd choice, considering that many people who buy tickets to a Will Smith movie do so under the assumption that he’ll be able to, you know, walk.

That choice is less odd when you consider that the story — directed by M. Night Shyamalan from a script by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”) — was conceived by Smith as a vehicle for his son, Jaden. The 14-year-old Smith is the real hero of “After Earth,” which is less a traditional summer blockbuster than a sentimental father-and-son melodrama, tarted up with CGI monsters.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which humans have evacuated a now uninhabitable Earth for a distant planet, the movie is essentially a two-character set piece. When their spacecraft crash-lands on Earth, General Cypher Raige (Smith senior) and his son Kitai (Smith junior) must navigate 100 kilometers of treacherous terrain filled with carnivorous beasts to locate the electronic distress beacon that will save them.

The bad news is: Dad was seriously injured in the crash, and Kitai is a young, impulsive and untested kid. The good news? Kitai’s form-fitting space suit — which looks like steampunk long johns outfitted with a bicycle-seat-shaped backpack — is made with high-tech “smart fabric.” Equipped with sensors, video camera and microphone, Kitai sets out, his every move monitored and dictated by the general, an emotionally remote but controlling father if ever there was one. The presence of man-eating aliens notwithstanding, it’s a tale of helicopter parenting on steroids.

And it’s not an especially new, interesting or even eye-catching one. The futuristic production design is blandly generic, the special effects, props and costumes cheap and slapdash-looking. One exception: a scene in which Kitai dives off a cliff in a “flying squirrel” wing suit. It’s pretty cool.

Fortunately, the movie gets a tiny bit better when Kitai accidentally loses the camera and microphone that tether him to his father. The sudden withdrawal of his electronic apron string forces the boy to get by on his own, which makes for somewhat higher stakes. Unfortunately, Jaden Smith does not have — how shall I put this nicely? — his father’s screen presence or charisma.

Yet.

Is it fair to expect an adolescent to not behave like one? Kitai spends much of the movie running around in a panic, waving his little arms at predators and shouting, “Leave me alone!” It’s appropriate to the character, I guess. But it’s also more than mildly annoying. Kitai comes across as a whiny, willful and one-dimensional brat.

Once Cypher and Kitai’s communications go dead, the elder Smith has precious little to do in the film, other than attempt some self-surgery on one of his injured legs. While he waits, Kitai forges on, fending off attacks from a venomous snake, a giant bird of prey and a pack of angry monkeys. All of them look obviously fake.

The real threat, however, comes from a nasty alien critter that, although blind, has the ability to smell human fear pheromones. Kitai’s cool-as-a-cucumber father is famous for his fearlessness — enabling him to effectively become invisible to the monsters. But Kitai has yet to learn this skill, called “ghosting.” (If only the kid had packed a can of Axe Body Spray.)

But never mind all that. “After Earth” only looks like a sci-fi film. At heart, it’s a tale of reconciliation between a callow boy and his jerk of an old man. Cypher knows how to boss Kitai around, but he just doesn’t know how to say, “I love you.” Shyamalan lays on the schmaltz thick and heavy, practically begging for tears.

You can’t blame Will Smith for wanting to give his son a leg up in the business. Maybe one day Jaden will have his father’s career — and his ability to carry a movie. For now, it’s a little premature to ask him to bear the weight of this soggy, waterlogged “Earth” on his skinny shoulders.

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(100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some violence, blood and gore.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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