Will Smith and son Jaden team up for After Earth, a formulaic sci-fi film infused with some tender father-son moments. Though loaded with impressive special effects, the main draw to the film is seeing both Smiths on screen together, but that time is limited. Commander Cypher Raige (Will Smith) returns from a mission to find that his ambitious son Kitai (Jaden Smith) has become withdrawn, frustrated that he's failed to earn a spot in their planet's soldier forces. Struggling to find common ground, the stoic Cypher invites Kitai on a routine training trip, but when their ship crash-lands on Earth, they must depend on each other (as the only survivors) to get back home. It's a little too convenient a premise, but that's only one of the film's elements that lacks originality.
So, what's wrong with Earth? It's been 1,000 years since the human race was forced to abandon the planet, which had begun deteriorating due to extreme pollution. Now, everything from the animals to the plants to the weather has adapted to kill humans. With Cypher wounded, Kitai must travel alone to retrieve a rescue beacon, but the video-game-like obstacles that stack up in his path are way too contrived to be taken seriously. Examples: he must carefully moderate his specialized oxygen capsules, the ground freezes at night, so he needs to make it to certain hot spots before nightfall, and, oh right, there's a monster on the loose that can literally smell fear. These are all the elements of a successful action movie, yet the film lacks heart and feels more like the introduction to a series (a sequel is already rumored to be in the works) rather than a stand-alone film. To find out more of what I thought of After Earth, just read more.
The most interesting part of After Earth is watching the real-life father and son interact on screen. It's been seven years since audiences have seen them on screen together, and Jaden is far from the little kid he was in The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, almost immediately after the ship lands on Earth, Cypher and Kitai split up and their shared screen time ends. Though they can communicate via futuristic arm-band walkie-talkies, the fact that the movie is mostly a solo show with Jaden as the star is kind of a bummer, even if it is nice to see Will passing the torch of stardom to the next generation.
The movie feels more like a movie recipe than a heartfelt film — two parts action, one part visual effects, one part environmental message, and one part heart-tugging family story. There are legitimate thrills, there are gorgeous backdrops, and the dynamic between Kitai and Cypher is involving to an extent, but there's nothing particularly memorable about the movie. Given that After Earth is directed, cowritten, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, a name synonymous with twist endings, I was holding my breath the entire time for something out of the ordinary to happen, but nothing ever did. Unless you have a penchant for futuristic creatures like wolf-monkeys or giant condors, After Earth isn't strong enough to warrant a trip to the theater.