The reason M. Night Shyamalan’s name isn’t all over the advertising for “After Earth,” which he directed and co-wrote, is undoubtedly that the marketing department knew the Shyamalan brand is no longer the robust selling point it once was. But it was an appropriate choice anyway, as “After Earth” has few of the elements that usually comprise “an M. Night Shyamalan film.” The only thing it has in common with his last several projects, unfortunately, is that it’s flatly acted and not very good.
Will Smith came up with the original story, which was shaped into a screenplay by Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”) and Shyamalan. Many centuries in the future, after mankind has abandoned the planet and lived on a colony in another solar system for a thousand years, a military man named Cypher Raige (the Fresh Prince) and his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith, Will’s 14-year-old boy), crash-land on Earth during a training mission. The planet has been uninhabited by humans for a millennium, and in that time Earth’s creatures have evolved to kill humans — which, yes, doesn’t make any sense (why would they evolve that way if there are no humans around?) and is also impossible (in only a thousand years??) and doesn’t matter for the story anyway (there are plenty of dangerous animals on Earth as it is).
Kitai is eager to please his stern, exacting father, and hopes to follow in his footsteps as a respected military leader. At the moment, with Cypher injured in the crash, Kitai is their only hope for rescue, but he’ll have to travel some distance through treacherous jungles to reach the beacon that can summon help. Cypher spells out the stakes, lest we misunderstand: “You are going to retrieve that beacon, or we are going to die.” From the crashed ship, Cypher provides guidance and instruction — he’s aided by technology that lets him see what Kitai sees, and also lets him see Kitai (there’s a little camera floating around Kitai, maybe? I guess?) — but it’s all up to Kitai.
That’s a lot of pressure for a 14-year-old. Kitai does all right in the end, but Jaden Smith doesn’t. After a wonderfully charismatic performance in the “Karate Kid” remake that suggested he could have his old man’s star power, young Smith is left to flounder here, all alone in the world and forced to carry scene after scene by himself. Not helping: the strange accent everyone speaks in (“Yes, suh! There ah monstaz!”), which Jaden just isn’t good at, and the film’s thematic emphasis on tamping down one’s emotions in favor of rationality. That may be good life advice sometimes, but a movie about people trying not to have emotions comes across, unsurprisingly, as emotionless. Will Smith, the superstar beloved by all peoples worldwide for his infectious optimism, is morose here.
Some of Kitai’s adventures are diverting, and everything is crisply, beautifully shot by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (who has worked with David Cronenberg a lot). But in the end the thinness of the story is its greatest undoing, culminating in an anticlimax that is distinctly unsatisfying. Will Smith, Jaden Smith, M. Night Shyamalan — it doesn’t matter who’s to blame, the film is disappointingly meager entertainment.
C (1 hr., 40 min.; )