It’s the year 1,000 A.E. — After Earth, hence the name of the movie — a millennium since humanity fled an ecologically ravaged Earth for a new home on another planet. Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his sulky 13-year-old son Kitai (Jaden Smith) are out on a routine training mission when their spaceship crash lands after an asteroid storm and a random warp jump. The planet they land on: Earth.
Raige Sr. is injured and can’t walk, and their distress signal beacon lies 100 km away where the tail of their spacecraft landed. Kitai, an unproven warrior, must traverse a planet where — as his dad tells him — “everything has evolved to kill humans.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, a captive alien Ursa that was in the spaceship’s hold seems to have escaped. Genetically engineered by an alien race to wipe out humanity, the Ursa are fearsome predators that literally smell fear, hence the only way to combat them is to become fearless, something Raige Sr. has mastered and his nervous son hasn’t. Cue the daddy issues that will be resolved by the last reel.
Based on a story idea by Will Smith and directed by M. Night Shyamalan — who rather remarkably still has a career after his previous stinker “The Last Airbender,” let alone the three or four that preceded it — “After Earth” is a slipshod, half-baked product that crashed at the U.S. box office, despite being helmed by the ever popular Smith. The reasons for this are numerous, but let’s start with the obvious.
“After Earth” supposedly stands at the core of a franchise-ready sci-fi universe, with books, games, comics and a sequel already in the works, yet Shyamalan just can’t seem to make any sense of the scenario. Examples: Technologically advanced aliens genetically engineer a species to exterminate us — and then forget to give the critter eyes. The Earth has been rendered unfit for human habitation, yet our heroes find the planet teeming with life, including our closest relatives, apes. The entire planet has “evolved to kill humans” — yet why would evolution take this path when there are no humans on the planet? Beyond that there’s one beast in the film that breaks this rule by rescuing Kitai. It seems impossible for Shyamalan to make it through any scene without stepping on his own toes, plot-wise.
A bigger problem is that Will Smith is sidelined in the crashed spaceship while Jaden goes off on the quest, and his star presence is still a big question mark. While no longer as bratty as he was in “The Karate Kid,” he tries on some weird accent here that doesn’t work. Like “The Karate Kid,” though, “After Earth” is a film produced by Jaden’s parents for him to star in, and the reek of nepotism is inescapable. Jaden fails to sell audiences on his character’s grueling coming-of-age story when it’s his own dad holding his hand and walking him through to movie stardom.
“After Earth” seems to be about nothing so much as itself, the passing of the torch from Cypher Raige to Kitai an allegory for the coronation of new Hollywood royalty, as Smith Sr. passes the box-office mojo to his entitled son. Jaden is hardly the first Hollywood kid to enter the biz — see Josh Brolin or Charlie Sheen — but he needs to start earning his breaks rather than having them handed to him.