Didn’t Will Smith already play the last man on Earth? In "After Earth" he’s not quite the last man on Earth - the planet was abandoned centuries before. But when he lands there after the spacecraft he’s commandeering crash lands (caused by one of the most poorly executed asteroid storms since sci-fi films of the 1970s), there’s no one to greet him.
He’s not, though, alone: Jaden Smith, his son both in the film and in real life, also survives the crash. But the elder Smith is so seriously injured that their only hope for survival is for the younger Smith (named Kitai) to traverse this alien landscape (something of a cross between a tropical rain forest and the American Northwest) and locate a device that will contact authorities somewhere out there to save them.
It won’t be easy - this re-virgined Earth is one dangerous place, filled with bloodthirsty monkeys, poisonous slugs and a giant hawk that sweeps out of the sky to carry the younger Smith to its nest for some undetermined reason. To further complicate matters there’s this creature that looks as though it wandered in from "Alien," with an equally vicious temperament. But is there any other kind in movies like this?
"After Earth" may be the most expensive home movie ever made. What else can explain its mix of rite-of-passage narrative and daddy-son bonding hokum? It is practically what is called in the theater a "two-hander," with long passages devoted to exchanges between father and son. Smith, you see, was injured in the crash and must direct his son on this dangerous mission. If the boy doesn’t succeed, they’ll die - a point that is hammered into the teenager’s head ad nauseam by his no-nonsense dad. (Talk about paternal pressure.) The usually jocular Smith wears a permanent grimace that makes it look as though he’s studied serious acting with Mel Gibson. But his one note-performance may just be the point: he’s an old school military guy. Feelings are for wimps (like his son).
In fact Smith is in such command of his emotions that he can turn off any fear (a mind-control process called "ghosting"), which makes him invisible to the Ursa, the breed of blind exterminators created by aliens out to destroy mankind when they escaped Earth. Once tricked, Smith (and others that master "ghosting") can kill the beasts with a cool futuristic version of a switchblade.
All of this is rather swiftly explained in the film’s prologue, which appears to have enough plot for six prequels; alas, nothing else is as swift after that. Smith is so adept at "ghosting," he’s become a major military leader, but this skill is something his son has yet to master -- especially after not helping his sister when she’s gorged by one of the creatures before his eyes. (This is seen in choppily inserted flashbacks.)
In Hollywood, a director is best-remembered from his last movie. When that movie is "The Last Airbender," there’s cause for alarm. Such is M. Night Shyamalan, who, to his credit, has a strong visual sense even when good sense of narrative appears to have abandoned him. He shares screenwriting credit with Gary Whitta, but one senses Will Smith, who wrote the story, has his hands all over the writing. For whatever the reasons, Shyamalan’s work is oddly impersonal, and sometimes surprisingly cheesy. The space sequences look like bad cable television, especially after the state-of-the-art work in "Star Trek."
Things pick up a bit once the Smiths become earthbound; at least the film’s central portion has a primeval look that evokes a sense of danger. Too bad Shyamalan doesn’t provide many thrills. A sequence when Jaden is chased by a giant hawk enlivens the inert story line, but for too much of the time this intergalactic story of a closed-off daddy and his needy son is more numbing than suspenseful.
Perhaps the point is the family that slays Ursas together, stays together. But it takes a long 100 minutes to make the point.