Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, play interstellar versions of themselves in "After Earth," a post-apocalyptic adventure film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. "I'd heard stories of Earth," says Jaden, playing a young space-ranger. "A paradise, until we destroyed it."
"After Earth" could have been a paradise for summer moviegoers. The elder Smith is one of the most appealing movie stars in the universe, while Jaden (2010's "The Karate Kid") is growing into a tall, lanky, handsome teen. They play a cold military father, Cypher Raige, and his sensitive son, Kitai, who crash-land on an abandoned Earth dominated by super-evolved wildlife. So far, so OK, at least. So why does "After Earth" feel like the opposite of entertainment?
Shyamalan's narrative skills have devolved from the near-genius of "The Sixth Sense" to the flailing mess of 2010's "The Last Airbender," and they haven't improved. (Will Smith is credited with the story.) You can almost see Shyamalan's eyes darting around as he makes stuff up. Cypher is stuck in the wrecked ship, so Kitai must go find the distress beacon. But don't forget to ingest your air purifiers! Oh, no, the Earth is freezing! Argh, a giant eagle! Flashbacks with Zoe Isabella Kravitz, as the sister Kitai lost to some kind of alien, aim to build toward an emotional climax but only confuse matters.
"After Earth" isn't just chaotic and desperate -- and grindingly slow -- it's also lazy. The futuristic United Ranger Corps is still sporting high-and-tight haircuts and snapping salutes, while the spaceships are the usual jumble of holographic displays. As for Earth's hyper-advanced baboons and tigers -- essentially Jaden's supporting cast -- they're vaguely rendered and without personality.
Someone on this film must also answer for creating one of the worst future-accents in sci-fi history. Reaching for regal Brit-speak but falling nearer to a Kentucky drawl, it renders the dialogue unintelligible or accidentally hilarious. "Inject yo self, di-rectly into yo haht," Cypher commands his poisoned son. The younger Smith fares worse, since many of his lines consist of two words: "Yes, suh."
With Will Smith barely on screen, Jaden must carry "After Earth" by himself, but it's an impossible task. It's a massive, disintegrating planet of a movie that nobody could survive.
PLOT On a routine mission, an interstellar soldier and his son crash-land on an abandoned Earth.
CAST Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Zoe Isabella Kravitz
BOTTOM LINE A lifeless wreck of a movie from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who creates a post-apocalyptic planet on which nothing, including talented actors and his own storytelling abilities, can survive.