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For a movie that’s all about fear and courage, After Earth is a painfully dull slog through a wasteland of blown opportunities.

I Am Legend’s Son

Jaden Smith is on the run After Earth
Jaden Smith is on the run After Earth

On the bright side, After Earth at least seems to be a movie of good intentions.

It can’t be written off as a Will Smith (Men In Black) vanity project. Smith spends the vast majority of the movie confined to a crashed spaceship with two broken legs (to quote his character, “Both of my legs are broken; one of them very badly”). And he’s not all that sympathetic, either. He’s an uber soldier named Cypher Raige who lacks heart and compassion and he’s a questionable father, to boot.

Also, mercifully, After Earth can’t be easily dismissed as simply another ludicrous M. Night Shyamalan misfire. Following on the heels of the equally flat The Last Airbender, Shyamalan has once again shunned creating his own characters and has instead deferred to the creation of others. In this case, while he nabs a screenwriting credit, the story belongs to Will Smith along with co-screenwriter Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli).

All in the Family

Early rumors suggested After Earth was going to tote an environmental message. Well, throw that rumor in the trash heap. The environmental aspect is tacked on as part of an opening segment that sets the stage with contemporary footage of industrial pollution and natural disasters (and the allusion that they’re directly related, regardless of the fact that centuries of natural disasters preceded the industrial age). The suckiness of people ultimately leads to a planetwide evacuation – an idea explored more effectively in Oblivion a mere several weeks ago. Then, 1,000 years into the future, man accidentally returns to Earth (that the planet is Earth is totally irrelevant, really) and a not-so-spectacular adventure ensues.

That adventure revolves around Cypher’s son, Kitai (Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s real-life son), who desperately wants to prove he’s every bit the soldier his father is. So Kitai sets off on a quest to retrieve a homing beacon from the tail end of their spaceship, which the latest and greatest in gadgetry tells them is 100 kilometers away. Giant birds and baboons are the primary dangers, along with one terribly nasty alien creature that’s escaped from the ship’s hold. The beast feeds on human fear. Oooh.

Repeated flashbacks to Kitai’s childhood (granted, that means the not-too-distant past) tell of his sister’s horrible murder at the claws of the alien monster. Kitai stayed secured away in a bubble rather than taking action and it’s a decision that’s haunted him ever since.

Prehistoric Future

Director M. Night Shyamalan’s been trying to make a transition from his mystery-filled and trick-ending stories, wherein he reached his high water mark early with The Sixth Sense, into the action-packed and straight-forward stories of summer. But he’s not ready for the tent poles quite yet. At least here he’s displaying a core competence lacking in his recent efforts; the performances from the Smiths are adequate, albeit not exactly compelling, and there are lots of nice visuals courtesy of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back).  There are also some nifty designs by Thomas E. Sanders (Saving Private Ryan); the futuristic sets in the opening scenes feel fresh and there are loads of wearable devices and roll-up tablet screens that fit in nicely with Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt’s vision of the future.

But – and it’s a huge but – Shyamalan has no command of action scenes. The movie is only 100 minutes, but each passing minute is progressively more butt numbing. His oeuvre, with the exception of The Last Airbender, has squarely centered on rather intimate storylines (the father-son aspect of After Earth fits in here, although it’s not an engaging story element).

The problem here is with the energy level; there are absolutely no sparks emanating from the screen. It’s a flatliner. And, without the benefit of a twist ending to at least keep audiences preoccupied with guessing, there simply isn’t enough interest generated in seeing if Kitai can accomplish his mission, retrieve the homing beacon, and thereby save his dad’s life.

At least there’s a good inside joke alomg the way. In addition to Smiths Will and Jaden, the movie was co-produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, wife to Will and mother to Jaden. At one point, Kitai tells his dad, “Next time I want to work with Mom.” Cypher replies, “Yeah. So do I.”

At least Will earned some brownie points for his effort.