AFTER EARTH is a solemn, self-congratulatory flick showing all the symptoms of a vanity piece run amok. Based on a story devised by star Will Smith as a vehicle to launch 14-year-old son Jaden as an action star, it shows little internal logic while never giving the audience a reason to care about anything that is happening on screen. Such is the self-absorption at work here that the director hired by Mr. Smith, who also produced, is M. Night Shfyamalan, who pretty much ended his big-screen career with a disastrous adaptation of the Airbender franchise after a string of flops that includes a tale in which the trees are trying to kill us.
Then again, perhaps it was the killer trees that made Mr. Shyamalan seem like a good idea, what with an integral part of the plot here being that the planet Earth has turned into a killing field for humans. The premise is that 1000 years after humankind is forced to leave the Earth after destroying it, a father and son with their own set of problems crash lands there. The father, portentously monikered Cyper Raige (Smith), is the top general in the Rangers, tasked with keeping the surviving humans safe on their new extra-terrestrial home. The son is Kitai (Jaden Smith), a bright, sensitive lad who dreams of impressing his father by becoming a Ranger, but has yet to advance past the cadet rank. With Dad wounded, its up to Kitai to retrieve the only working beacon that will bring a rescue team to the forbidden planet. Forbidden because, as Cypher monotonously intones, everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans. except, of course, the birds that Kitai sees flocking while he hikes to where the beacon has crash-landed several days journey away, or the bison that are migrating, or the river in which Kitai takes refuge when the baboons, who apparently got the memo about killing all humans, gang up on him. Oh, and theres an alien-engineered beast designed to smell human fear that has also crash-landed with Cypher and Kitai. Without it, there would be no reason for the melodramatic backstory that haunts both father and son, nor would there be occasion for Cypher to monotonously intone that danger is real, fear is a choice, and reminisce about how he became a ghost, which is a Ranger who has managed to suppress all instinct for fight-or-flight.
The monotonous intonation is the hallmark of Smith the Elders acting choice, which is to underact with extreme prejudice. He is robotic, even when shedding the obligatory tear when he thinks he has failed Kitai. Smith the Younger, on the other hand, overacts to the same, if opposite, degree. After a promising debut in THE KARATE KID, a role that required more than the usual discipline to pull off successfully, here his efforts are painful to watch as hysteria and breathing hard substitute for character development. That the story itself peters out into monotonous repetition fairly quickly does not help, nor does Shyamalans penchant for filling the screen with either Wills blank face, or Jadens agitated one, nor does the vast array of clichés, including the one in which Cypher solemnly and monotonously intones to his wife (Sophie Okonedo), that this trip with Kitai will be his last before retirement.
AFTER EARTH is the 2013 version of a 1950s B-movie with none of the fun. Half exposition, half inept action, and all as tedious as trying to figure out why atmospheric interference only works one way with the communications, or why the beacon that will save the heros is shaped like the starship Enterprise. Its that sort of film, where you are so bored that the brains innate ability to recognize pattern, even where it might not exist, kicks in as an auxiliary form of self-preservation from terminal boredom.