Father-son projects can be beautiful things, and one hates to cast bad vibes on a family-bonding moment, even when it is the pampered, elite Hollywood set. But the cinematic afterbirth that is After Earth probably should have been left in the drawing-board stage, or in the realm of ideas whose screen time should never come. Directed by twist-master M. Night Shyamalan and based on a story by Will Smith — anointed as a “modern master” by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival but more generally viewed as a master of the yeoman nice-guy niche of the movie landscape — this low-concept sci-fi romp brings together Smith with his son, young actor Jaden, in a plot fittingly involving a father-son misadventure turned rite-of-passage, of comic-book-ish clichéd proportions.
In this scenario, set in a retro-future moment a millennium after some apocalyptic incident has made Earth inhospitable and uninhabitable to humans (but, oddly, not other members of the animal kingdom), Smith the elder plays a cool father figure, always away on interplanetary business as a “prime commander,” who decides to mend some filial chill by inviting his son on a spaceship trip. An asteroid-storm mishap and a crash landing on the post-humanity Earth, leaving dad incapacitated, triggers an adventure in which the son has to brave great dangers — fending off lions, angry simians, ugly toxins, and an über-nasty creature that is essentially surrogate for the classic slay-worthy dragon in the silly fairytale narrative.
“Danger is very real,” advises the wise patriarch, “but fear is a choice.” At other moments, dad imparts such fortune-cookie wisdoms as “root yourself in the present moment.” The fate-punished son, on his jungle cruise through challenges, pain, and suffering, resorts to earthier wisdom, as when he survives a poison-transcending incident and says, “That sucked.” “That is correct,” says the stiff-lipped, military-speak-spewing dad.
This weirdly inert film is lovely to look at (although this CGI animalia business already feels stale after Life of Pi got away with it so artfully), but we keep hoping for one of those crazy Shyamalan-esque twists of fate or crazy detours to save the story from its own self-strangling lameness and big-screen unworthiness. No such luck, present-moment Earthlings.