1) Danger is real.
2) Fear is a choice.
3) Jaden Smith is a terrible actor.
Bland, uncomfortable, and always over-serious, Jaden whines just loud enough to drown out Shyamalan's few solid instincts. The film begins with a couple gorgeous, wide-shot setpieces—a rugged desert; a lush, eerie forest—then tumbles toward Jaden's whimpering face as though compelled by some sort of unspoken gravitational force. After a feeble fight, Shyamalan resigns himself to the boy, placing the camera fifteen inches from the youth's tear-stained nose for the movie's final hour. At least Will Smith appears bothered by the proceedings. He periodically yells at Jaden, rolls his eyes, and even passes out from exhaustion before settling into numb resignation. The film's greatest mystery might just be whether Smith Sr. is acting at all.
In time, several other mysteries arise: why was this made? how did Sony sign off on this? was Will Smith coerced?! Regrettably, none have anything to do with the plot. A thousand years ago, explains Kitai Raige (Jaden) in an off-key opening monologue, humans left Earth's uninhabitable surface. With the whole galaxy at their disposal, they settled on the only obvious choice: a planet infested with giant, flesh-eating aliens that can smell human fear. (It turns out humans secrete pheromones when nervous, which gives off a distinct scent...or something.) With the human race hanging in the balance, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) trained himself to fight without fear, a combat technique called "Ghosting." Invisible to the baddies, Cypher and his aspiring force of Rangers drove off the brutes and established a human settlement.
The monologue having reached its bewildering conclusion, we're treated to a series of familiar father-son tropes. Cypher is revered for bravery; Kitai lacks courage. Cypher serves as the Rangers' general; Kitai can't even pass the initiation tests. Will Smith looks bored in his role; Jaden is just plain boring. Sensing awkwardness, Kitai's mother (Sophie Okonedo, forgettable) suggests the two bond on an interstellar trip. The duo crash-lands on a certain popular planet (I won't say which!) where "everything has evolved to kill humans." With Cypher horribly injured, Kitai alone must find a distress beacon 100 kilometers away.
The ensuing hour plays like a bad version of The Hunger Games films, which is to say it's like reading The Hunger Games books. Kitai bounds about the forest, mixing superhuman acts with profound bouts of idiocy. A prisoner of plot advancement, Kitai obeys his father with steadfast obedience, only to arbitrarily defy him when Shyamalan needs a little more rising action. Jaden Smith's Kitai may be cranky and irritating, but his worst sin is playing a character who so obviously doesn't exist.
At times, Shyamalan himself hardly seems present either. Only rarely giving into his vintage hokeyness, After Earth features safe, predictable camerawork, routine action sequences, and a distinct lack of spookiness. Sure, Cypher's "danger is real, fear is a choice" speech is trademark Shyamalan fluff, and the laughably dramatic, here-comes-a-key-moment(!) slow-mos display the director's classic, overbearing style. But apart from the occasional indulgence, Shyamalan seems nervous, disinterested, or perhaps a little of both. And who can blame him? After a decade of unmet expectations, nasty reviews, and rapidly waning interest, how could the man direct with near the same confidence and purpose he displayed in The Sixth Sense?
While the blame for After Earth must be shared by both director and stars, the public will want a scapegoat. Jaden certainly makes a strong case, robbing the movie of intrigue with each proud pout and defiant foot-stamp. Will, too, deserves consideration for his lazily transparent promotion of the Smith family, and particularly, for hyping his less-than-talented son. In the end, however, the blame will settle squarely on Shyamalan, the once-successful, many-times-a-failure filmmaker. If there's any silver lining for the man, it's that the public outcry will likely fade from memory just as quickly as this terribly forgettable film. Perhaps that was Shyamalan's plan all along.