In After Earth, Will Smith spends a lot of time trying to remain conscious. He has good reason. His character -- a prime commander in a futuristic army -- suffers two broken legs when an astroid storm causes his spacecraft to crash.
Unfortunately, I, too, had to struggle to stay awake during After Earth, and for equally good reasons. This latest project from M. Night Shyamalan -- a director whose success with The Sixth Sense gave him an elite status that his subsequent work seldom justifies -- is dull, derivative and doomed by a script that displays little by way of inspired imagination when it comes to envisioning a dystopian future. Yes, that again.
For a movie that teams Smith with his son, Jaden, After Death finds surprisingly little emotion in the father/son relationship at the movie's core. Blame here doesn't necessarily fall on the actors' shoulders: Smith worked well with his son in The Pursuit of Happiness (2006), and Jaden has had successes of his own, notably the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid.
One of the movie's major miscalculations involves Will Smith's character, Cypher Raige. Cypher (could there be a worse name for a character?) is a spit-and-polish, no-nonsense general who treats his son more as an army recruit than a young person he loves. To play such a stern father, Smith reduces his performance to a monotonous display of stoicism and military bearing.
The duty-bound Raige has been a mostly absent father: He's been busy fighting aliens, leaving his son in the care of his mom (a badly underutilized Sophie Okonedo). A backstory about about Raige's older daughter (Zoe Isabella Kravitz), makes its way into awkwardly introduced flashbacks and into scenes in which Jaden's character hallucinates about her.
The action begins 1,000 years after people were forced to evacuate the Earth, a planet made uninhabitable by human stupidity and aggression. After the devastation, humans fled to the planet Nova Prime, where they constructed bland futuristic cities and battled hostile alien creatures who evidently didn't appreciate being colonized.
In an effort to create a stronger bond with his son, Kitai, Raige takes the kid on a mission that goes awry with the spaceship crash. Father and son are the only survivors.
The rest of the movie finds the injured Raige using what's left of the craft's equipment to monitor his son's journey through forbidding forests as he tries to retrieve a device that can beam a signal to rescuers. The ship's tail, where the last such functioning device was kept, broke off far from where the main body of the vessel hit ground.
The movie follows a classically mythic structure based on Kitai's maturation. He confronts obstacles, faces his fears, and, finally, must do battle with an alien monster.
No fair picking on Jaden, who's too young to endure any critical scorn, but I was puzzled by the fact that Smith -- who takes a story credit and who serves as one of the movie's producers -- decided that this turgid concoction would make for an exciting father/son vehicle.
The movie's action set pieces -- Kitai confronts a fierce mama eagle, snarling big cats, a group of ferocious monkeys and more -- hardly qualify as edge-of-the-seat entertainment, partly because they're so obviously the result of computer-generated artistry.
If you're a stickler for consistency and credibility in the creation of a sci-fi universe, bring a scorecard: You'll find plenty of missteps to keep you busy.
Smith's character speaks to his son in clipped, lifeless dialogue. He encourages Kitai to carry out certain tasks "ASP," and when the youngster is on the verge of being overcome by panic, dad tells him to "take a knee."
Upon hearing this advice, the youngster drops to one knee and tries to collect himself before moving on to the next uninspired and enervating adventure.
After Earth doesn't qualify as an epic catastrophe, but it's a long way from anyone's best work. In this summer's lineup, it may well wind up being little more than an afterthought.