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after_earthWhat do you call a Will Smith movie that’s not really a Will Smith movie?

A screening of his new film, the sci fi actioner directed by M. Night Shyamalan provides the answer. “After Earth” sounds like a great Smith vehicle—he not only acts in it, but produces and has a story credit as well—but it fails to take advantage of his greatest asset—his star power.

Big Willie is Cypher Raige, a highly respected general in the intergalactic peacekeeping organization Ranger Corps, based on the planet Nova Prime. He rose through the ranks fighting the Ursa, genetically engineered beasties who can literally smell human fear. They are POed because they consider the planet their home and the humans interlopers. By learning to overcome his fear—a technique known as “ghosting”— Cypher became invisible to them.

Unfortunately his son Kitai (played by his real life son Jaden Smith) is invisible to him. To try and mend family fences he takes the youngster on a mission to deliver an Ursa specimen for use in training ghost warriors wannabes.

But after Cypher breaks his leg in a crash landing on Earth, a planet uninhabited for a millennium, Kitai must navigate the unfamiliar landscape and battle the escaped Ursa and overgrown Earth organisms—everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans!— to retrieve an emergency beacon.

Herein lies the big problem with “After Earth.” Will Smith—one of the most charismatic movie stars of the day—may have his name above the title on the poster, but he’s the star in billing only. For most of the film he lays back, motionless and bleeding, allowing the light to shine brightly on his son Jaden.

It’s too bad, the listless “After Earth” needs the elder Smith driving the film, not taking the backseat over enunciating motivational lines like, “Recognize your power: This will be your creation.”

Jaden isn’t a strong enough actor to hold the center of a massive CGI movie. He’s charismatic like his dad but here he appears to have only a handful of facial expressions and rotates between anger, surprise, fear and some serious eyebrow acting for most of the film’s scant 90 minute (including credits) running time.

Shyamalan, whose forte is not helming big summer tentpole movies, doesn’t bring much to the screen visually. The look of the movie is generic sci fi, and for every cool scene—Kitai soaring through the air in a wing suit, chased by a giant eagle—there are obvious soundstage scenes and cheesy costumes. Then there are the accents—apparently all future people sound like Rolf Harris. And don’t even get me started on the logic leaps—how do flora and fauna survive on a planet that falls into a deep freeze every night, for instance.

On the plus side it does have a pretty great last line, and at least it isn’t in 3D. But at the end of the day “After Earth’s” main crime is placing Will on the sidelines, robbing it of a star that might have been able to make this journey interesting.

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