By Eric Henderson

After Earth is a battle between the once and probably not future king of the summer movie, who wants nothing more than to see his son ascend to the crown in his stead, and the director whose name has steadily devolved from wunderkind to wonder-why-he’s-still-allowed-to-direct-movies. Utter selfishness and sheepish selflessness duke it out for supremacy, and the result is one of the least satisfying albeit oddest misfires of the season. Word of mouth is as toxic as anything connected to M. Night Shyamalan thus far, but make no mistake. This is failure with pizzazz.

Will Smith’s Son, who I will henceforth refer to as Will Smith’s Son, stars as Will Smith’s Son. The two live approximately 1,000 years in the future, the nearest imaginable date wherein the human race will have shown signs of having forgotten how impressive the Smith brood were. In other words, a dystopia. Will Smith’s Son is in training to become an intergalactic ranger just like his father, a position of greatest esteem in the year 3000, since humans had to abandon earth long ago, and now live on a satellite planet. To clear a space for themselves on Nova Prime, humans have had to contend with the presence of a particularly carnivorous alien breed that can’t see anything, but can hone in on human fear like a vampire bat using sonar. Nervous sweat is their dinner bell.

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(I can’t help but wonder if Shyamalan was trying to slip an allegory somewhere in there directed at the producers who still finance his films. If we’ve reached the point where studios believe they have to sidestep mentioning that Shyamalan is attached to their new project, shouldn’t it stand to reason that Shyamalan shouldn’t be attached to new projects in the first place?)

Some rangers have mastered a technique referred to as “ghosting,” meaning they’ve overcome their biological fear and can slaughter the alien killers without even being detected. Will Smith is one of them. Will Smith’s Son wants to be one of them too, especially since he saw Will Smith’s Fake Daughter murdered by one of them in their own home.

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But try as he might, Will Smith’s Son is just not a talented enough ranger candidate. So Will Smith throws his clout around to get him aboard his ship, so that he may learn from his example and carry the baton.

Gee, does any of this sound a tad meta to you?

It should surprise no one that Shyamalan’s script descended from an original story idea thought up by Will Smith, who long ago lost his sense of humor but has since failed to replace it with any humility. Once their ship crash lands on Earth (now a dangerous terra furia with tree-sized condors and daily deep freezes) and the elder ranger’s leg is broken, leaving the younger to trek miles in search of their transmitter beacon, Smith’s scenario is basically a demonstration of the principle that parents need to help their kids learn the ways of life, but must also let them do things for themselves if they ever expect to survive. This, from someone who serves as producer on a $130 million showcase for the still mostly speculative talents of his progeny.

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Sadly, if that 13 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, this is the sort of nepotism that ultimately could impose a heavy psychological tax on the intended benefactor, whose limited acting skills might end up paying the price for a father’s unchecked pride.

Eric Henderson