There's something unsettling hovering in the air in the tedious new sci-fi survival adventure After Earth. It's the sense that we are getting a glimpse into some intimate family moment that we shouldn't be privy to. Not only do father and son Will and Jaden Smith star together as father and son, but the movie is very much about their relationship, specifically the son's struggle to grow up proud and strong in the darkness of his father's long shadow. Sound familiar? Well, it should, as rapping/acting Jaden is essentially endeavoring to recreate the career of his mega-star, most-bankable-actor father. Swap showbiz out for alien fighting and you basically have the hereditary tension of After Earth, which is about a son realizing his potential and making his father proud. The plot of the movie is, anyway. I'm afraid that in the actual world, young Jaden still has some work to do.
As Jaden sorta-explains in mumbling, oddly accented (more on that later) voice over at the beginning of the film, in the future humanity has fled the Earth they've made uninhabitable and resettled on other planets. Trouble is some aliens don't want humans on these planets, so they send strange monsters to the settlements to kill everyone. Those monsters, get this, navigate by smelling fear, and are as deadly as they are slimy and buggy. (They look a bit like the Rancor in Return of the Jedi, only with more legs.) But then comes a dude named Cypher Raige (elder Smith) who is fearless in the face of these alien ghouls, and is thus invisible to them. (This fearlessness is called "ghosting." Whatever.) He's a beloved war hero who is stern and distant with his own family, until he and his teen son Kitai (Jaden, duh) are on a mission together that crash lands on, get this, Earth. Everyone else is killed and Cypher is seriously injured, so it's up to Kitai to traverse the treacherous terrain and retrieve a homing beacon from the tail section of the stingray-shaped spaceship. Thus begins our adventure, if you can call it that.
Some questions about this world, meaning Earth. It's been a thousand years since everyone picked up and left, right? So, sure, some things would have changed, definitely. But why are there new species of tigers and giant birds that understand concepts like repaying kindness? That's not, um, exactly how evolution works. I mean, a thousand years ago it was the Dark Ages and things were certainly different, but I'm pretty sure animals look basically the same now as they did then. A lot of species are dead and gone, sure, but the ones that are still around probably look mostly the same. And no new mega-species have popped between 1000 BCE and now, last time I checked. So what gives, After Earth? And why does a movie called After Earth that is very specifically about crash landing on Earth, not really engage at all with the idea that it's, y'know, Earth? Meaning, where are the ruins of human civilization and why all the CGI landscape? Presumably they actually did film this movie on Earth ("Costa Rica" is on Earth, right?) so why not just film Earth, with some computer tweaks where necessary? Ultimately, it seems of zero consequence that the planet they've crash landed on is Earth. There's no twist (this being an M. Night Shyamalan film, you expect a twist), and no interaction with the concept of an ancient homeland. Really it could be any planet full of cliffs and scary animals. After Monster Planet would work just as well as a title, guys.
Anyway, young Jaden goes capering off into the world and is met with a series of setbacks and struggles until he achieves his goal. This whole time, papa Smith is guiding him and monitoring him from back on the ship, computer screens giving him vitals and probabilities and all manner of other things. In some ways it's like Will Smith is playing a video game of his son. The movie is about Kitai fulfilling his own potential, but the specter of dad, capable and competent dad telling him exactly what to do, still looms large. This adds to that creepy feeling that Will and Jaden are working through some father/son stuff and we've been asked to pay to watch them do it — because they are the Smiths, such magnificent creatures, we should watch in honored awe as one Smith passes his greatness onto another. I don't like it, it feels weird and indulgent, and I don't really understand how this dull, interior $130 million film got made. There will forever be a thematic potency to the father-son dynamic, but in After Earth it's so specific it feels almost embarrassing.
There are many other embarrassing things about the film. Going back to the science questions, I'm just not really sure an ecosystem wherein everything freezes over to the point of human inhabitability every night is really one that would sustain itself in the lush, verdant manner this one does. That seems dubious to me. Also dubious are those accents. I'm guessing this was Shyamalan's contribution, a supposedly cool way to show how society have changed and, yes, evolved in the thousand years since the exodus from Earth. But really all it does is give us the strange impression that the only cultures that survived were Germans, South Africans, and the staff at Cypress Gardens. Meaning the accents are an odd mix of genteel Southern lilt, Afrikaans-flecked mumble, and Teutonic harshness. It sounds silly immediately, and even sillier when both Smiths begin to slip in and out of it arbitrarily. Their performances are completely unlikable in all other ways too. Jaden is just not a very good actor, I'm afraid; he doesn't even do the relatively simple work of enunciating his lines. His father, on the other hand, is a fine actor who's been an enjoyable screen presence for many years, but here I don't get why he is saddled, willfully, with such a monotone, unfeeling character. What's the point of putting Will Smith in your movie only to mute his inherent wit and charm to the point that he sounds like a curiously accented robot? It's such a waste. Elsewhere, the great Sophie Okonedo shows up briefly as the Jada stand-in, while Zoe Kravitz, another celebrity scion, appears in flashbacks as Kitai's dead sister. But mostly it's just the two Smith men, doing some kind of family therapy exercise in funny space suits. It's somehow weightless while also being deeply off-putting.
I suppose one could say the same thing about On Golden Pond or any other movie that puts a parent and a child together in a story about parents and children, but After Earth is given such mythic proportions that it feels especially egregious. And the rest of the film, the supposedly exciting adventure part, is so wan and listless that all that really registers is the boom and rumble of the father/son stuff. There's no clearer sign of the film's clumsiness than the fact that the big climatic showdown happens with an alien monster. Not something from Earth, in the movie all about crash landing on Earth, but something that crashed with them. Not able to get anything real going in the world of the movie, Will and Jaden just brought something from home.