The new Jaden Smith-Will Smith movie (yes, the son gets top billing and the larger role) takes us to the ends of the Earth to share a simple lesson.
"Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. ... Danger is very real but fear is a choice," Cypher Raige (Will Smith) tells his son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), in "After Earth."
Unlike in most movies, where the pivotal father-son talk happens when the pair are in the same hospital room or ballpark or in the glow of the Christmas tree, this lesson is delivered long-distance.
2 stars = Mediocre
Jaden Smith, Will Smith.
PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.
The Smiths' bond on screen is evident but the separation diminishes the power of the pair and the story about a boy coming of age, stepping out of the shadow of his revered father and guilt over a loved one's death and learning how to think for himself and face down fear.
The elder Raige, a heroic general in the United Ranger Corps 1,000 or so years from now, is trapped with two broken legs in a crashed spaceship that landed on -- gulp -- Earth. The only other survivor, his teenage boy, must head miles away in this strange, perilous land declared unfit for habitation long ago.
The planet, free of Earthlings who poisoned it and watched it succumb to natural disasters, now is pristine but dominated by animals that have evolved to kill humans. The survivors' only hope for summoning help is a beacon that landed miles away from the main wreckage.
"You're going to retrieve that beacon or we're going to die," Cypher matter of factly tells Kitai.
With his father's voice echoing in his head, sometimes literally thanks to communication gizmos, Kitai must scale mountains, navigate rivers, and confront creatures familiar and alien in the case of something called an Ursa that preys on the pheromones humans secrete when scared.
"After Earth" is based on a story by the Smiths, who first envisioned a father-son trip in the Alaskan wilderness but then changed the backdrop to the far future. Director M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta wrote the screenplay, which the maker of "The Sixth Sense" then directed.
Jaden Smith, who will be 15 in July, proved he's a solid actor with "The Karate Kid" and "The Pursuit of Happyness" starring his father. Mr. Smith here is in super-serious mode, confined to the vessel with his life slipping away and worried that the same has happened to his son.
But "After Earth" is not as emotionally involving as you might expect, given the subject. Humor is in short supply and the sci-fi action movie cannot match the summer fun factor of, say, "Iron Man 3."
It compresses a millennium of history into a quickie voice-over, drops in names without accompanying explanation, draws on some elaborate history cooked up for cast and crew (and included in the press kit but not movie) and occasionally shows its obvious CGI, particularly in a beastie battle at the end.
It's a handsome movie with two appealing leads, just not a great or engaging one.