After two hours of observing a moping 15-year-old Jaden Smith scamper about, whimper, and throw a rock at a monkey with all the credibility of Pauly Shore essaying King Lear, you'd expect his dad Will Smith to say, "Good job," hand you $20, and then drive you home. Sadly, life isn't always fair.
If that weren't enough, M. Night Shyamalan’s malformed ode to father/son bonding in the year 3000 on an abandoned planet known as Earth is frighteningly bungled from the very first pedestrian shot.
The initial five minutes or so try to set up the plot with an incomprehensible narrative, I believe voiced by the leaden-tongued Jaden, who definitely needs a Professor Henry Higgins in his life.
As for the plot -- and I might be wrong here, but there are times when being wrong isn't that foul a deed -- in 2025, man resettled on Nova Prime, an exo-planet outside of our Solar System, after several natural and manmade disasters destroyed every Starbucks, and aliens let loose several monsters called Ursas on Earth. These semi-yucky horrors are apparently blind, but with the ability to sense the chemicals released by human fear, they get their Happy Meals in the end. This is how the sister (Zoe Isabella Kravitz) of Kitai Raige (Jaden) was disposed of before his very eyes and our own repeatedly. You see, there are flashbacks, and flashbacks within the flashbacks, and reruns of those very flashbacks, plus loads of mediocre acting within these flashbacks.
Anyway, Will Smith plays the extremely somber, immobile General Cypher Raige, just what we want when we go to a Smith film. Imagine an Amazon.com carton left out in the rain for several days, and you have gauged the emotional power of his portrayal. Well, Cypher and Kitai are on a spaceship transferring an Ursa to a locale where it won’t be able to decorate trees with human corpses, its signature hobby. But there's a crash, Ursa escapes, Cypher has two broken legs, and only Kitai can save the day by ferreting out a transmitter located in their ship's tail, which has broken off and is somewhere on the planet.
So can Kitai be victorious even after being temporarily paralyzed by an oversized leech and captured by a Brobdingnagian bird? Of course. But can he salvage the film? You've already wormed out the answer.
(An aside for Melville fans: While Fast and Furious 6 only mentioned Moby Dick once, the whale of the book is a ubiquitous metaphor in After Earth, which will no doubt cause a noticeable drop in its book sales in the coming months.) - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theatre" and "Gay and Lesbian Identity in Literature" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice,indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate,and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.