Despite the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Evil Empire, the empty fears about Y2K, the uneventful coming and going of the millennium, the film industry regards the future with a love for both panic and profit. For some decades now, the post-apocalyptic vision has dominated science fiction movies, and when Hollywood imagines the future, it dreams dark dreams.
The latest addition to the genre, "After Earth," stars Will Smith — he's been there before, in "I Am Legend" — whose name appears all over the credits, and his son Jaden, playing, yes, a father and son in the distant future. A perfunctory, implausible voice-over narration informs the audience that humans have destroyed the environment, allowing alien beasts from somewhere or other to dominate, killing any humans they encounter. Will plays Cypher Raige (really), a general in a military force called the Ranger Corps, who masters "ghosting," the shutting down of any fear, which is the only way the beasts locate their enemy. Jaden is his son Kitai, who tries to live up to his mostly absent father's strict measures and join the Rangers himself.
Father and son journey from the new human home, Nova Prime, on a galactic voyage, but their space ship breaks up in an asteroid storm and crashes — wouldn't you know it? — back on Earth. A badly injured Cypher and Kitai, the only survivors, must activate a beacon for rescue, so Cypher sends his young son, guiding him with electronic communications through the dangerous landscape, to find and activate the beacon. That adventure and its predictable perils become the real subject of the film, a story of Kitai's battles with all sorts of dangers, his mastery of fear, a kind of coming of age, and his battle against the most dangerous beast, a monstrous crustacean called an Ursa.
The plot shifts back and forth between Kitai's adventures and his father's constant advice on coping with all the dangers he faces. It also intersperses flashbacks to some tragic events in the past that explain some of the attitudes of both father and son. Cypher lost his daughter to an Ursa, an event that burdens Kitai's conscience with a heavy load of guilt.
Despite the attempts at a Zen-like profundity in Cypher's instructions to his son in controlling his terror to thwart the Ursa's sensory abilities, and the inspirational quality of the relationship between father and son, "After Earth" fails on a number of levels. The various ordeals that the plot visits on Kitai accumulate like a series of bad jokes — changes in temperature, a paralyzing infection from an insect bite, a fight with a band of tiger-like cats, an encounter with a giant eagle that carries him to her nest, and the final battle with the Ursa.
Perhaps the strangest and indeed the silliest element in the movie concerns the weapons that Kitai and the Rangers deploy against the monsters. Any devotee of science fiction naturally expects the people of the future to arm themselves with ray guns, blasters, atomic pistols, even our old friends, the phasers. But these guys use a sort of Swiss Army knife of a weapon, a rod that turns into a lance, a sword, a hook, whatever, a most primitive device for a race that travels between the stars.
With his name appearing as a producer and supplier of the original story, Smith apparently intends the movie as a celebration of his star power and maybe even as a promise of developing into an auteur in his own right. The disappointing emptiness of the script and the direction of M. Night Shyamalan, whose work displays ever-increasing absurdity and deterioration, suggest that such ambitions may never result in any kind of success.
The performances pretty much match the film in their level of failed ambition. Will Smith hardly convinces as the stern martinet and further suffers the handicap of remaining supine throughout the movie, living vicariously through his young son's adventures. Poor little Jaden simply looks scared and lost most of the time, and certainly not physically impressive enough to withstand all the dangers the script creates for him. "After Earth," finally, makes the apocalypse and its aftermath a most disappointing business.