If Jaden Smith’s eyebrow curls and forehead scrunches aren’t enough to send you running from the theater, the lame video game story line and nauseating narration of “After Earth” will certainly give you a queasy feeling that will make you grasp for an air sickness bag. Columbia Pictures tried to play down (i.e., conspicuously hide) in the film’s trailer and one-sheet the fact that this new feature from the Smith Family Robinson school of filmmaking was directed, co-produced, and co-written (with Gary Whitta) by M. Night Shyamalan, whose career continues to warp out of control after such promising, thrilling spook tales as 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” in 2002. Unfortunately, “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” and “The Last Airbender” followed.
As for Whitta, “After Earth” runs along similar tracks as his first effort, “The Book of Eli,” a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic fable of an imperiled planet, but in Whitta’s sophomore effort the peril is cyber-dramatically thin and devoid of any Easter eggs (more on that in a minute), and what little is there is not particularly helped by 14-year-old Jaden Smith, on whom most of the action centers. He may be a movie star and the son of one, but his acting skills are strained and unrefined. His incoherent narration as the film begins quickly covers the Earth’s self-inflicted demise and its 1,000 years’ aftermath in which the population has fled our planet for a Nova Prime human settlement in a galaxy far, far away.
Their snazzy spaceship, shaped like a manta ray, has left mankind’s new home under the charge of Commander Cypher (Will Smith), an emotionless, heroic leader who likes to meticulously enunciate every word/order as if a psychoanalyst, and who appears to have a stick up his a*s. Along for the ride is son, Kitai Raige (Jaden), a ripening but not-ready-for-picking Ranger in his father’s image.
This boy scout, who would be happy to just get a kiss or even a hug or smile from his iron-faced dad, has been invited along. Staying behind is off-Earth mother Faia Raige (Sophie Okenedo), hopeful that her husband and son can work things out as they ferry a ferocious alien (and presumably immortal) beast, the Ursa, to a distant outpost. We are told that the Ursa can smell human fear (really?), but would rather hunt and kill them.
Short story: the ship crashes (on Earth!), the Raiges are the only survivors (although other crew lived long enough before being skewered by the escaped alien beast), and Kitai, outfitted in high-tech gear but relatively low mental state, must travel to the split-off ship’s tail section to retrieve an emergency beacon. Cypher, with two broken legs, stays behind and provides a pathetic voice of reason to his son. “Feel the Force” (whoops, I mean “Take a Knee”) he constantly reminds his hyperactive son via telecommunication, in an effort to reduce his over-beating heart.
Getting back to the film’s offensive video game feel. Earn cinematic plot points by remembering to use a special inhaler to make the toxic air breathable, self-inject a serum to fight the effects of a poisonous leech, escape a wild baboon attack, avoid the freezing night cold by reaching the right “hot spot,” climb a high volcano, etc., until the final leap into manhood via “Ghosting,” a zen-like, walking-on-fire disciplinary practice that Cypher has mastered, but that his son unconvincingly grasps only in the film’s final moments that allows for the ultimate victory (i.e., high score). Bing. Bing. Blah.
Mash into this simple, and simply ridiculous plot, a backstory involving Zoe Isabella Kravitz (“X-Men: First Class”) as Kitai’s older sister Senshi, now dead-at-the-paws (mitts?, claws?) of an Ursa, who saved her brother’s life when the beast struck during a home invasion (candygram?). She appears sporadically in various shadowy ghost guises, offering her bro predictably sage advice, usually about an old edition of “Moby Dick” she’s reading.
So, if you want to hammer a nail in Shyamalan’s coffin, wait two years for “After Earth 2: Sequel to a Dud.” Wait a minute! Are you friggin’ kidding me? It’s a joke, right? Well, just my added subtitle. Apparently Richard Branson wants his space-bound tourists to enjoy a piece of insipid inflight entertainment, which he will co-produce with Will Smith and James Lassiter’s Overbrook Entertainment.
It’s hard to believe a sequel will get made. Porting it to a video game would make a lot more sense. Especially as I don’t play them and wouldn’t have to bother reviewing it.