By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The twist to M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth is that there is no twist, unless you count every ounce of personality being drained from Will Smith and most from his usually charismatic son Jaden. That's more surprising than The Sixth Sense's late fake-out that made Shyamalan's career and each one since that ruined it.
By comparison, After Earth is spoiler-proof since nothing happens that isn't telegraphed in the first 20 minutes. It's elemental science fiction that truth would be stranger than, lacking any sense of allegory or wonder separating wheat from chaff within the genre.
The elder Smith is terminally, atypically pensive as Gen. Cypher Raige, who is commander of all the star troopers of Nova Prime, a settlement established for survivors after Earth was overrun by alien life forms called Ursas. Cypher became a legend in defeat thanks to his "ghosting" skills, enabling him to become invisible by not displaying fear that Ursas smell.
The younger Smith plays Kitai Raige, who wants to be a space ranger like Dad but hasn't advanced beyond cadet status. Kitai hasn't seen Cypher much over the years, busy as the old man has been chasing Ursas elsewhere. There is no warmth or humor in this relationship to make their survival anything to hope for, only flashbacks to and hallucinations inspired by a nasty Ursa encounter years before.
Cypher decides it's time to retire and be a parent but there's one last mission to handle.
Naturally, he takes his strategically unprepared son along for the ride that turns catastrophic when a space storm erupts. The damaged ship escapes through a time warp and crash lands on Earth, which is now a quarantined planet. Everyone's dead except Kitai and Cypher, who is gravely injured.
That leaves Kitai to do all the heavy lifting, trekking 100 kilometers through a world of underwhelming post-historic creatures to locate the other half of the space ship where a rescue beacon is stashed. Each Raige has a health deadline to beat — Cypher's severed leg artery and Kitai running out of oxygen juice — lending a smidgen of tension to the inevitable conclusion.
The screenplay by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta dutifully lays out red flags to be raised later: an Ursa cocoon aboard the space ship, and how Cypher learned "ghosting." The script also makes up stuff when necessary to escape being painted-into corners, like antitoxins and the previously unmentioned skills of air gliding and telepathy. These would be classified as howlers if After Earth mustered enough excitement to urge howling. It doesn't.
Fans of either Smith will be sorely disappointed. The elder never before appeared this listless on screen, and the younger misplaced his unforced rapport with the camera that made the Karate Kid reboot so impressive. Only Shyamalan delivers what moviegoers expect from him, and that's a shame.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.