‘After Earth” is Will Smith’s version of Take Your Son to Work Day. Actually, he lets the kid take over the whole office. Some Hollywood kids get Porsches. Jaden Smith gets an apocalyptic summer blockbuster to horse around in. He was 13 when the film was shot. Somewhere off-camera, a rabbi must have been saying, “Today you are a star, my son.”
Sorry, not quite. “After Earth” takes place millennia in the future, when mankind has long since fled our ruined home planet and resettled on a distant orb called Nova Prime. Except for the carnivorous alien squiddly-diddlies called Ursas — they’re blind but can smell your fear — the place is paradise.
Smith Sr. plays the bodaciously named Cypher Raige, leader of the warrior class known as Rangers and the coolest honcho on Nova Prime. He’s so cool he has mastered the art of living without fear, which renders him invisible to the Ursas. No such luck for his son Kitai (Smith Jr.), a gangly Ranger cadet who’s loaded down with guilt over the death of his sister (played in flashback by Zoe Isabella Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet — you can’t be in this movie without celebrity DNA).
Father and son ship out on a bonding mission but crash land on an Earth that has returned to its pre-human wilderness state. Dad’s legs are broken, immobilizing the older Smith in the cockpit for the duration, and it’s up to Kitai to cross 100 kilometers of dangerous territory to find the rescue beacon in the spaceship’s tail section. Oh, and the slavering Ursa they had caged up in the hold is out and about.
It’s very sweet that Will Smith, who wrote the original story and served as co-producer (along with wife Jada Pinkett Smith), has given his son a movie of his own to prove his worth. And “After Earth” is a passably entertaining visionquest of an adventure, one best suited to 10-year-old boys who’ll goggle in awe at the baboons and giant eagles while hoping Kitai conquers his terror and brings it home for Dad.
For grown-ups, it’s more of a trudge. The movie is being billed as a two-for-one Smith special, but Will Smith is not only stuck in a chair for much of the running time, he plays Cypher as a military man repressed to the point of constipation. It’s a humorless, charisma-free performance — not exactly what we’ve come to expect from this actor.
Perhaps he’s dialing it down so that his son might shine the brighter. To carry a movie, though — which is what “After Earth” asks of Jaden Smith — you need acting chops and basic screen presence, and I really regret to report that the kid has neither. He held his own as the young son in “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) and as the lead in the 2010 remake of “The Karate Kid,” but adolescence seems to have knocked the knack out of Smith, and his performance here is tense and amateurish. We’re supposed to root for Kitaj, not tire of his whining.
Around here I should note that the movie was co-written and flaccidly directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a fact that the marketing campaign for “After Earth” would prefer that you ignore. “After Earth” is a step up from 2010’s hapless “The Last Airbender” and proves that Shyamalan hasn’t completely forgotten how to make a movie, but his 1999 breakthrough, “The Sixth Sense,” is looking more and more like an aberration. If he can forget anyone ever considered him a visionary and be content with being a journeyman director, he may have a career yet.
Still, is it Shyamalan who almost cruelly hangs Jaden Smith out to dry in “After Earth”? Or is it the pressure of working for the Old Man? We like to choose our movie stars democratically rather than having them foisted on us like royal heirs, and I can’t imagine moviegoers are going to fall for the younger Smith just because his father says we should. Maybe it’s time for the boy to leave home and find a weird little indie movie of his own.