1.5 stars (out of four)
After Earth is so staggeringly ill-conceived, you almost have to admire the moxie of all involved with it.
First you have a major studio (Sony), rolling the dice on a summer sci-fi blockbuster by an auteur director (M. Night Shyamalan), whose previous attempts at popcorn thrills (The Last Airbender, The Happening) were greeted with raspberries.
Then you take your marquee star (Will Smith), add 10 pounds and remove any trace of charisma, while benching him for most of the movie. The burden of the picture falls upon the star’s 14-year-old son (Jaden Smith), who is simply not up to the task of emoting within a CGI-heavy environment.
Add to this misguided literary pretensions, through constant bizarre references to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel of adult obsession and revenge that has little connection with the Boys’ Own Adventure in which the film steadily devolves.
If you’re going to fail, you might as well fail big. The result is a movie that should have been called Death Wish, had that title not already been nabbed long ago. And the only value in watching it is to see an expensive disaster slowly unfold.
The time is some 1,000 years in the future, after negligent Earthlings have turned their planet from a paradise into a garbage dump. Regular humans have been evacuated to a new planet, Nova Prime, while the bravest and strongest of them work as Rangers, intergalactic policemen who tangle with bug-like alien monsters called Ursas (shades of Starship Troopers) who constantly threaten Earthlings just for the hell of it.
The bravest and strongest of the Rangers is Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who has learned how to defeat Ursas by suppressing his fear, which the beasts can smell. This skill is called “ghosting,” and it’s just one of the things Raige’s son Kitai (Jaden Smith) aspires to do, on that happy day when he becomes a Ranger himself.
But as the story begins, Kitai is told by a Ranger chief that he’s “not ready” for prime time, because he has a tendency to fade in the field — a comment that also serves as criticism of Jaden’s underachieving acting.
Daddy Raige, small on emotion but big on bromides (“Danger is very real, but fear is a choice”), decides the thing to do is to bring brooding Kitai along on a patrol. And when their spaceship crashes on a planet very much like Earth (twist alert!), sans humans, it’s suddenly up to Kitai to save the day.
Cypher breaks both legs in the crash, obliging him to remain in the ship (which resembles the interior of a whale). He Skypes commands to Kitai while the lad embarks upon a 100-km jungle trek to recover a lost homing beacon that may save them. The beacon was in the tail of the ruined spaceship, which also contained an imprisoned Ursa.
We’re advised that this hostile land freezes solid each and every night, but this doesn’t seem to affect the flourishing greenery, flowing rivers and waterfalls that Kitai must traverse. Nor does it stop the baboons, birds of prey, carnivorous animals and other subpar CGI creations that Kitai must fight, when he’s not falling into a coma, as he regularly does.
Details, schmetails. They obviously didn’t concern Will Smith, who wrote the story that Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) have awkwardly adapted for the screen.
Will and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden’s mom, also have production credits on After Earth. The family connections give the strong aroma of a vanity project designed to bolster Jaden’s dubious acting career, which his inert performance in The Karate Kid remake should have already settled.
The parental interest is admirable, especially Will’s thoughtful decision to downshift his own acting so as not to upstage his son. Will hasn’t been this immobile since he was poisoned by a jellyfish in the calamity called Seven Pounds.
Yet we all know what road is paved with good intentions, and it’s not the one leading to multiplexes showing After Earth.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.