After Earth: Will Smith & Son Play a Hunger Game

What do you give the movie star's son who has everything? The lead role in a $130-million sci-fi epic that never soars.

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Frank Masi / Columbia Pictures

Why does the future in some sci-fi films have to be so damned dystopian? Granted, life is a vale of tears, a myopic eyeblink between the cradle and the grave, while grim death gargles at you from every corner. But movies should squeeze a little juice out of this pulp, find verve and fun in our limping race to elude mortality. The bleak, anodyne tone of futurist movies is especially disappointing when their stars are guys who made their reps decades ago as blithe charmers with mile-wide grins — Tom Cruise in the recent Oblivion, or Will Smith in this weekend’s example of mopey dystopia, After Earth. The onetime Top Gun can’t crack that larkish smile; the erstwhile Fresh Prince has gone stern and stale.

In just his second picture (following Men in  Black 3) since 2008, Smith teams with fellow Philadelphian M. Night Shyamalan, who hasn’t made a terrific movie since The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, back in the last millennium. This time Shyamalan is working from a story by Smith and a script by Gary Whitta, whose The Book of Eli managed to put the top-spin in dystopia. No such luck here. Running, or stumbling, only 90 minutes (plus about 10 mins. of end credits), After Earth may lack the neck-swiveling awfulness of Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, but it quickly sinks in its logorrheic solemnity. The movie makes Oblivion seem as jolly a romp as Spaceballs, and gives neither Shyamalan nor Smith much to smile about.

(READ: Corliss’s review of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender)

Smith plays a superstud space commander a thousand years from now, when Earthlings have decamped to the distant planet Nova Prime. Like the solitary man he played in the 2007 I Am Legend, which was set in the near future (2012) that is now the past, Smith is a natural warrior with supreme survival skills. Here, his gift is “ghosting” — overcoming his fear to make him undetectable to a species of blind monster known as Ursa.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Will Smith I Am Legend)

Our hero also has a problem: he’s called Cypher, which in its alternate spelling of Cipher means either cryptographic code or arithmetical zero. Second problem: His character lives down to his name. He speaks like the stodgiest computer, noting that “Gravitime buildup could be a precursor to mall expansion” (or something like that). HAL 9000 had way more human inflection than this grim professional soldier.

A workaholic who’s too busy saving the universe to spend much time with his family — or to have saved his daughter (Zoë Isabelle Kravitz) from being hacked to pieces by an Ursa — Cypher returns to Nova Prime to find that his rebellious, underachieving son Kitai (Smith’s own 14-year-old child Jaden) has flunked his entrance exam for Ranger Academy. Cypher’s wife Faia (Sophie Okonedo), the only sensitive human left in the clan, tells him what Shyamalan has already been pounding home: that Kitai “doesn’t need a commanding officer. He needs a father.” Time for some serious daddy-son bonding.

(SEE: Steven James Snyder’s Top Five Underrated Sci-Fi Masterpieces)

Cypher obliges Faia in the letter, though in not the spirit, of her plea — he still barks out orders like “Evaluate! Consolidate!” — by taking Kitai on a routine mission of transporting a caged Ursa to some distant outpost. The ship crashes on Earth, the Ursa escapes, the rest of the crew is killed and Cypher’s legs are broken, rendering him immobile. Kitai must go on a three-day wilderness adventure to locate the tail of the ship, which contains communication devices, while Cypher monitors the lad’s progress and perils via 31st-century Skype from his sickbed. The rest of the movie is Kitai’s tribal rite of passage — a one-boy Hunger Games woodlore ordeal supervised by his dad, the Great Santini.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hunger Games)

On this summer camp from Hell, Kitai stumbles into the Lascaux caves, skirts a nearby volcano (how the topography of France has changed in a thousand years!), uses his cape to take Avatar flying lessons and huddles in a “hot spot” to keep warm in the freezing night (though the planet’s lavish flora has apparently developed immunities to cold). He encounters baboons, lions, bison herds and birds the size of a Dreamliner. And, of course, the Ursa. What’s missing are the humans who often show up in futurist sci-fi films set on Earth (e.g., Oblivion and I Am Legend). That must be because the planet is filled with creatures that, as Cypher warns Kitai, “have evolved to kill humans” — and they killed all of them!? All right, then, no humans. And no sad, adorable robots; a visit from WALL·E would have cued a welcome respite from the emotional aridity.

(READ: Corliss’s review of WALL·E)

That leaves two appealing actors stranded in the busted hull of this underpopulated, unfeeling effort. If Will Smith wants to play grumpy alpha-males instead of exuding some old his old, easy charisma, that’s his privilege. We’ll just keep hoping that the Fresh Prince wakes up and gets a revivifying dose of Jazzy Jeff. But Jaden — a sweet sensation with his father in the 2006 The Pursuit of Happyness, and three summers ago with Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid — shouldn’t be forced into a balky character just because he’s entered his terrible teens. His notes of fear and anger are marked by the primitive fret lines and taut lips that animators draw onto the faces of Bart Simpson and Stan Marsh. And a brief note to Jaden’s parents and teachers (who are also his parents, since they home-schooled the boy and cofounded the New Village Leadership Academy that he occasionally attends): the young man’s enunciation is muddy, which virtually requires English subtitles for Kitai’s voiceover narration.

(READ: TIME’s appreciation of Jaden Smith in The Karate Kid)

The movie ought, at least, to look great; it was lensed by old-master cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who has shot 10 David Cronenberg films plus The Empire Strikes Back. But After Earth doesn’t create the startlingly new vistas that Avatar taught viewers to look for. Back in 2006, when other directors had embraced the digital format, Shyamalan was one of the last to champion old-fashioned film. “Digital is just too smooth,” he said then. “You almost have to degrade the image to make it more real.” After Earth, shot on Sony’s F65 CineAlta digital system, looks consistently unreal. Its pasteurized visuals are less persuasive and distinctive than the matte paintings that Albert Whitlock devised for The Birds, Diamonds Are Forever and Earthquake. State-of-the-art the new movie’s technology may be, but offering little innovative cinematic art.

(READ: M. Night Shyamalan and George Lucas on the future of movies)

Will Smith may have thought that this $130-million picture would be the most loving, extravagant present a rich man could give his son: the launch of a film franchise that would keep Jaden busy through high school and beyond. (The Internet Movie Database lists a 2015 sequel, After Earth 2.) But the first episode is so lifeless, eventless, humorless, virtually movieless, that its chances of resuscitation are slim. As Cypher warns Kitai: “This mission has reach Abort Criteria.”

Actually, in Critics Academy we are taught never to end a review with a sarcastic quote from the film under consideration; the tactic is just too easy and cheesy. Yet here the temptation proves irresistible. So here’s one more. After some mini-castastrophe, Kitai mutters, “That sucked.” Radios his dad: “Correct, Cadet.”