Not long from now, Netflix will catalog the mind-alteringly awful “After Earth,” starring Jaden Smith and Will Smith, in its Science Fiction section. A more accurate category would be Nepotism, a peculiar brand of make-believe where influential Hollywood parents present their offspring as stars in their own right, without the heavy burden of developing talent or public appeal. The movie will find a fitting grave alongside 2005’s “Hostage,” starring Bruce Willis as a cop and Rumer Willis as his abducted daughter, and the collected works of Tori Spelling.
“After Earth” is a work of hubris magnified by multiple miscalculations, the kind of film that would cause Ed Wood to excuse himself and skulk to the exit.
Smith senior plays Gen. Cypher Raige, the stoic military leader of an off-planet Earthling colony. I am not making this up, that is seriously his name. His main task is killing giant bugs our alien enemies have dropped onto our settlement. The ugly beasts are blind, locating human prey by the smell of our fear-triggered pheromones. Yes, these are monsters that could be neutralized with a squirt of Axe body spray. Nobody in the future has thought of that.
Gen. Raige kills the space roaches with a two-bladed spear (a gun would seem a better choice, but remember, these guys haven’t figured out deodorant). His technique is to be so zen cool that the creatures can’t sniff him. A glowering, humorless disciplinarian (a role Laurence Fishburne could have played much better), Gen. Raige acts like an android with a defective empathy chip. His conversation at the family dinner table sounds like snippets from “The Art of War.”
There are some issues between father and son, to put it mildly. Young Kitai (Smith junior), a military cadet at that gawky all-knees-and-elbows age, fears he can’t measure up to Dad’s standards. It’s like the vibe between Melissa and Joan Rivers on the Oscars red carpet, but in space.
Thanks to lazy screenwriting, the pair crash-land on Earth 1,000 years after the human exodus. Paralyzed, Gen. Raige sends Kitai overland to locate the lost SOS transmitter. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” he warns. Which is a stupid evolutionary strategy, with no humans around.
In a bewildering procession of nonsequiturs, buffalo coexist with orangutans and cobras, hyenas have learned to climb trees, tropical bromiliads thrive in wintry redwood forests and river leeches have developed fast-acting venom. All in just 1,000 years. Also, condors have learned dolphin-like compassion, saving Kitai from certain death more than once. So Gen. Raige was wrong on that count.
The story’s details make no sense at all. A lava-belching volcano contains a refreshing swimming pool. A random cavern features caveman drawings. The Raiges’ spaceship, whose interior is modeled after an intestine, is transporting a giant bug egg for reasons I can’t explain because I am not fluent in stupid.
The film’s broad strokes are painfully trite. The acting is wooden, the dialogue inane, and M. Night Shyamalan’s directing choices are a lesson in sci-fi cliché. Even such surefire thrill-ride effects as Kitai leaping off a giant waterfall go inert through stumblebum editing. The only positive effect of “After Earth” is that it has improved the reputation of “The Wild, Wild West,” previously the worst movie of Smith’s career.