There's no sunlight shining on "After Earth," a dim and monumentally boring sci-fi movie that opens in the prime of summer movie season -- a time of the year that star Will Smith used to own. But instead of bringing back his blockbuster charisma to the fold, Smith seems more intent this time around on molding a career for his teen son, Jaden Smith, and the result is, metaphorically speaking, a global disaster.
If one good thing comes out of this, perhaps the elder Smith will now listen to this emergency transmission: "Earth to Will: Enough with the Hollywood nepotism, already. You seriously need to get back to doing what you do best -- on your own."
Set in 1,000 years in the future, "After Earth" finds Earth's inhabitants colonized on the planet of Nova Prime, where Supreme General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) returns to reunite with his estranged wife (Sophie Okonedo) and their fragile, 13-year-old son, Katia (Jaden Smith). Shortly after he returns, the fearless, hard-as-nails Cypher has an epiphany that he's far too tough on his soldier-wannabe son, and invites him on a mission with some fellow warriors.
The father-son bonding session soon turns into harrowing fight for their lives, though, when their spaceship is damaged in an asteroid storm and crash lands on Earth. As the only survivors in the wreck, Katai comes through the crash unscathed, but both of Cypher's legs are broken.
With a rescue beacon 100 kilometers away, Katai must venture out under the guidance of his father into the unforgiving environment of Earth with a limited oxygen supply and a spate of monstrous creatures ready to eat him. The odds for survival aren't good, unless Katai can prove he's as good a soldier as his father.
See my review of "After Earth" on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Pat Evans.
Billed in the lead role, the burden of the success of "After Earth" squarely lies on Jaden Smith's shoulders, following supporting roles with his father in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and opposite Jackie Chan in 2010 remake of "The Karate Kid."
Unfortunately, the kid simply does not have the chops yet to pull off this big of a role. While he has the ability to project the angst of his character through his expressions (or, it could be a real-life bewilderment, for that matter), there's just no real feeling in his dialogue. Sure, Shyamalan tries to magnify Katai's anxiety through flashbacks of a tragedy involving his older sister (Zoe Kravitz), but even then, it only gives two actors playing a younger versions of Katai chances to shine instead.
While Jaden Smith hits the wall in "After Earth," Will Smith definitely needs to shoulder some of the blame.
Getting a "story by" credit for the film, the elder Smith really needed to pen himself a lot more charming of a character than the one-note-Willie we get here -- a glum, monotone soldier who doesn't even break a sweat despite traumatic leg injuries that push him to the brink of death. "After Earth" desperately needs a sense of humor, and Will Smith could have helped matters considerably by writing a more engaging character. We've certainly know he's capable of it.
While a huge amount of the burden lies with the Smiths, the fall-guy here will probably end up being director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan, the one-time "Sixth Sense" Oscar nominee whose career went into a complete free-fall after his success follow-ups "Unbreakable" and "Signs."
Not surprisingly, Shyamalan lands on "After Earth" with a resounding thud, making a movie genre-wise, that couldn't be any further from his suspense-filled "Sixth Sense." There are no Shyalamanian twists to be had here, just a predictable, by-the-numbers sci-fi movie that doesn't dare to venture into any uncharted territory. It's sad to see the once-budding master-of-suspense turn into a mere director-for-hire.
One area the first-in-command should have taken control was in the casting department. Quite simply, Shyamalan should have advised Will Smith to cast a far more experienced young actor in the role of Katia. If you don't believe in his casting abilities, consider how Shyamalan had the foresight to showcase an 11-year-old actor named Haley Joel Osment in a 1999 film -- you know, the one who convincingly delivered the line "I see dead people"?
Instead, Shyamalan's career remains in stuck in the dead zone, and if Will Smith keeps making these kinds of moves, his career will crash land there, too. After all, "After Earth" might be the worst science fiction film to come down the pike since John Travolta's "Battlefield Earth," one from which Smith will not easily recover.
"After Earth," rated PG-13, 1 star out of four.
See the trailer for "After Earth" below.
What other local critics are saying ...
Chris Hewitt gives the film 2 stars in his Pioneer Press review, noting its solemn tone: "After Earth" is a drag … nobody on-screen has much fun with "After Earth." And neither do we," Hewitt writes.
In his 1 star review of the film, Colin Covert of the Star Tribune says, "The acting is wooden, the dialogue inane, and M. Night Shyamalan’s directing choices are a lesson in sci-fi cliché."
Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.