When the main character befriends a gigantic carnivorous bird in the science fiction film you're watching, you know you're in a galaxy far, far away from sound judgment. You're in "After Earth," starring Will Smith and his son Jaden as a father and son stranded on a hostile planet after their spaceship hits interstellar turbulence.
There's been a lot of criticism directed at the Smiths' acting in this movie, especially at Jaden, 14, along with complaints about the film's special effects. While both are questionable at times, even poorly accomplished at others, they exist in the context of a story that's much more problematic. "After Earth" can be enjoyed on the reflexive level of people being chased by scary, chasey, drooly creatures, but rationally it's about as cloudy as a nebula.
The challenges to logic begin with the premise, provided at the beginning in flashback and voiceover. The Earth, we learn, was abandoned by humans many light years ago after they ruined its ecosystem, resettling on the generically named planet Nova Prime. Details are very fuzzy. Certainly humans are in another solar system now, but in the same galaxy? Where exactly? How did they get wherever they are? Was it more cost effective and technologically feasible to move an entire civilization billions of miles than to repair the home planet?
Wherever and however the humans got where they went, they were greeted by a hostile alien species. These aliens — whose actual presence on Nova Prime is kept from us, perhaps by a budget cut — have genetically manufactured fearsome creatures to kill the humans. These creatures look suspiciously like the sloppy, screechy, fangy creatures from a lot of other science fiction, giving credence to the notion that intelligent exo-species really do watch our television broadcasts. They also were engineered with only one specialized sense with which to hunt humans. As Jaden Smith's Kitai Raige puts it, "They literally smell fear" through human pheromones.
This is the point where a "haven't thought things through" factor really begins to stick out. Kitai's father, Gen. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) fights back by "ghosting," in which he walks up to a creature without fear, thereby blinding it and effortlessly slicing and dicing it. Fair enough. But if the creatures only navigate by fear pheromones, what do they do when humans aren't around? Wouldn't they be constantly bumping into each other, falling off cliffs and running red lights?
Before we can ask this question, or why humans with interstellar technology are fighting with swords, Raige must go on one last mission, and he must bring his son, who remains shaky as a ghost warrior. Of course everything goes wrong, and they end up stranded on a planet. That they accidentally warp to a particular planet, whose name may or may not be in the movie title (and which seems to be thriving by the way) isn't the unlikeliest thing we learn, not by far: "This is a class-one quarantined planet," Cypher warns Kitai. "Do you know what that means?" What? What does it mean? That it still has a bunch of chemicals in the oceans? No.
"Everything on this planet," Cypher explains, "has evolved to kill humans." Wait. How? There were no humans on the planet. They all left. How did these computer-generated animals evolve to kill humans? Wouldn't they have evolved to kill each other?
"After Earth" was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" fame, but it's doubtful you'd know that if you didn't look it up. There's no tricky ending. There's no directorial signature. There isn't much indication that the movie was directed by any specific human at all, with or without fear. It was written by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, from a story by Will Smith, and it wafts the sickliest smelling pheromones of the unabashed star vehicle. It's a film meant only to spotlight the Smiths in a medley of familiar sci-fi tropes.
This is Will Smith's "Avatar," but instead of advancing movie technology, it's constructed to show off Jaden — running, jumping, emoting and triumphing. But everything around him is as ridiculous as "Battlefield Earth," undercutting the effort to establish him as a teen action idol. It wouldn't matter if Jaden was as good an actor as his father, or as great as Morgan Freeman. "After Earth" still would be an afterthought. (PG) 100 min. S