The best compliment I can give After Earth is that it isn't god awful like the recent batch of M. Night Shyamalan films. It is an underwhelming exercise in science fiction that barely registers as entertainment. In a summer where Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 push the envelope of special effects, After Earth falls woefully short as a visual spectacle. Couple that with a lackluster plot and you have a blip on the blockbuster radar. Will Smith has owned summer box offices in the past, but I'd be very surprised if After Earth delivers the 'Big Willy' numbers.
Set a thousand years in the future, humanity has abandoned Earth due to over population and pollution. We settle on a distant planet called Nova Prime, where another alien race has also laid claim. They release a crab-like, genetically engineered beast called Ursa to wipe out the humans. This creature is blind and deaf. It hunts by detecting pheromones man secretes when afraid. So in order to be a bad-ass Ursa killer, you must be without fear. Insert Will Smith as Cypher Raige, the Prime Commander of the Rangers. He's mastered a technique called 'ghosting', where he emits no fear pheromones and can destroy Ursa with impunity. His son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), lives in his father's shadow. Burdened by a past tragedy, Kitai longs to be accepted to the academy and become a ranger like his father. Cypher and Kitai attempt to bond on a space voyage that goes horribly wrong. They crash land on Earth, where the ship splits in two. With Cypher critically injured, Kitai must venture into the wild to find a beacon that will rescue them. He must survive the creatures of Earth, and an Ursa that was with them on the ship for training purposes.
After Earth begins with a glimmer of interest when the alien war and Ursa concept is introduced. Unfortunately, this exposition is done in a five minute montage in the beginning of the story. We only see fleeting passages of the aliens and Ursa fighting. I can't even remember if they mention what the alien species is actually called. Everything else takes place on Earth, where Cypher is stuck in the crashed ship and Kitai is bumbling about in the wild. The film attempts a sort of father and son bonding theme. Surviving a desperate situation and becoming a man in the process. My problem is that the screenplay by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan leaves zero doubt to the outcome. There wasn't a second of this film that I thought Kitai was in any real danger. The whole plot is exceedingly pedantic. The Smith's look like they're going through the motions. I wouldn't say the acting is poor, just blasé. It's as if they also know there's no real threat so why get worked up.
The production design and special effects in this film are not up to par with modern big-budget standards. The trailers for After Earth did not excite me because the effects weren't interesting. I was hoping to be astounded with new content as I watched the film, but this is not the case. The creatures are unrealistic CGI and the settings are forest. After Earth was filmed in Costa Rica and it looks like they are in Costa Rica. It's rare that I call out a film for poor production design, but Thomas E. Sanders and Shyamalan needed more creativity here. I particularly did not like the ships or weapons. I think the idea was to make everything have a bony, ridged look, like vertebrae and membrane. It didn't look futuristic to me and that detracted from the substance of the story.
After Earth is an unremarkable film from a director that has lost his way. Shyamalan's career started with such promise, but he hasn't been good in a long time. I'm never one to write anyone off, so I hope he still has some of the old magic left to make better films. The Will and Jaden Smith combo can't save After Earth with star power. I like them as actors, but this film is not a showcase of their talent. I definitely cannot recommend spending extra to see After Earth in IMAX or 3D.