Jaden Smith in "After Earth."
Director M. Night Shyamalan is the Jekyll and Hyde of Hollywood. He soared with twisty thrillers "The Sixth Sense" (1999) and "Unbreakable" (2000), but stumbled badly with recent offerings "The Happening" (2008) and "The Last Airbender" (2010). So teaming up with the Fresh Prince for a fresh start probably seemed like a bright idea.
"After Earth" is the sort of picture the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang would salivate over. The costuming and set design often scream "sci-fi on the cheap," and the performance by lead Jaden Smith is amateurish at best and awful at worst. Shyamalan's solid direction and some decent visual effects offer a bit of redemption, but not nearly enough to warrant your box-office bucks (especially with "Star Trek Into Darkness" playing one theater over).
Set in the distant future when the human race has abandoned Earth for greener pastures, the story follows stoic general Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), as their spaceship crashes on the one planet they want to avoid: Earth. Kitai sets out to locate a piece of the ship and a homing beacon that will get them safely off the planet while Cypher stays put to mend his broken legs. But Kitai's journey won't be an easy one, as evolved species, rugged terrain and a vicious alien bar his path.
Clearly intended as a starring vehicle for Jaden, "After Earth" comes across more as a misguided vanity project for producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. There is an admirable moral undertone about conquering fear that gets somewhat lost in the messy sci-fi morass. And Kitai is a weak character, diluted more so by Jaden Smith's novice portrayal. In fact Kitai (or is it Jaden?) appears ready to weep or run in nearly every scene -- not exactly the behavior of heroes.
Will Smith does his best to shoulder the load and delivers a heartfelt performance. The visual effects are also impressive, especially when Kitai is being chased by a pack of ornery baboons. And kudos to composer James Newton Howard for a strong soundtrack.
Ultimately though, "After Earth" is the dictionary definition of nepotism. And there's no reason for you to waste your time and dime on this family affair.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images. 1 hour, 40 minutes.
- Tyler Hanley