M. Night Shyamalan's father/son, sci-fi, action drama opens with a shot of Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) helplessly curling into the fetal position. A flashback then takes us back to three days prior, when Kitai is busy being an angsty, over-zealous, disobedient space cadet (in the literal sense of the term) with daddy issues.
We learn that humans destroyed Earth, forcing a mandatory evacuation of the planet. Everyone now lives on some other rock in space that remarkably resembles the set of old science fiction films with cheesy backdrops of orange mountains. Additionally, we learn that Kitai's father, Cypher (Will Smith) is some sort of heroic space commander who fights aliens that were genetically engineered to kill humans. These aliens cannot see humans, but instead track them by picking up on the pheremones excreted when people experience fear. Cypher is invisible to the aliens, though, because, obviously, Will Smith is fearless. This phenomenon is known as "ghosting."
On the eve of his father's long-awaited return, Kitai learns that he will not graduate to become a Ranger thanks, in large part, to all of that angst. Cypher yells at his son about the Ranger situation because he's basically a pageant mother, further perpetuating Kitai's problem with authority. As a result, Kitai's mother urges Cypher to take the boy along on a routine trip to ditch one of those people-killing aliens that their people trapped.
This whole sequence feels like M. Night Shyamalan needed to spend 20 minutes telling us about this awesome movie he was going to make before actually allowing that movie to begin. More than that, though, Kitai's disdain for his father feels trite and there hasn't been enough of a backstory to convince everyone that Cypher is this miraculous space warrior.
So, to recap, we're on another planet, Earth is no longer habitable, there are aliens genetically-engineered to kill people (but they can't see people), Will Smith is a space commander "ghost," his son hates him, and they're traveling through space to dispose of one of those killer aliens. Still with us?
The all-knowing Cypher can sense that an asteroid shower is about to engulf their ship, even though the rest of the crew and all of the new-age space instruments on-board say that they'll be fine. SPOILER ALERT: Cypher was right. The ship takes heavy damage and, under Cypher's orders, makes a crash landing.
Super space warrior Cypher and his son, Kitai, are the only two survivors of the crash. Cypher's legs are broken, though, which means NO WILL SMITH ACTION IN THE WHOLE, ENTIRE FILM.
Seriously, THERE IS NO WILL SMITH ACTION IN AFTER EARTH.
Instead, Kitai will have to venture out and fight the dangers of the mutated planet Earth to retreive a beacon flare to signal for help. With Cypher immobilized in the ship, their only means of communication is through what is, essentially, a quarterback playbook wristband equipped with FaceTime. That, and Kitai's backpack comes with whatever they call a GoPro in the future, enabling Cypher to see what his son sees.
What follows is some sort of Frankenstein of sci-fi flicks. It's Hunger Games meets Rise of the Planet of the Apes meets Avatar meets The Lion King. But, without most of the appeal those films hold individually.
Kitai encounters a bevy of obstacles that his father walks him through while struggling to tend to his own injuries in an effort to get off the rock that humans had foresaken long before their arrival. But, will Kitai be able to ghost?
It's not very surprising that much of Shyamalan's film feels heavy-handed. From the dangers of the Earth to the "give to nature and it will give back" motif. We get it: fear is a choice. Also, the whole tragically flawed beasts hell-bent on destroying humans routine felt kind of tired when the aliens in Signs were deathly allergic to water. (If you're allergic to water and smart enough to travel through space to attack another species, why attack a planet that's two-thirds water? If you're going to, maybe at least wear clothes you do.) These mini Cloverfield monsters aren't anything new.
Also, the whole Will Smith is injured and sitting out of all the action while his son does all the hard work and stunts thing serves as an apt metaphor for how people will probably feel about the film. Smith sits there and coaches his son through the dangers of an unknown world. That's basically what he does in real life, too.
Though, for all its flaws, After Earth's pivotal scene—when Kitai struggles up a modern, CGI incarnation of Nickelodeon's Agro Crag while his father tracks him on a high-tech version of the radar map displayed in the corner of first person shooter video games—was rather compelling.
The flashbacks felt obligatory, but the action sequences proved serviceable. The backstory was weak, but the scene when Kitai's angst finally boils over is passionate and, again, serviceable. For as agonizing as the first act felt, the rest of the movie wasn't as irritating as most of Shyamalan's recent efforts (looking at you, The Happening).
After Earth is a generic, middle-of-the road summer sci-fi film. It's a popcorn flick propped up by Will Smith's behemoth career. On a scale of The Last Airbender to The Sixth Sense, After Earth is a 4.5, but we'll round that up because it's a Will Smith movie that doesn't have a number in the title. A five, it is.