A father-son encounter session tricked out with science-fiction clichés and steeped in motivational uplift, “After Earth” opens with a teenager, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), washing out from some kind of ranger academy. It’s a bummer because all he wants to do is please his father (Will Smith, Jaden’s father), a heroic if unfortunately named general, Cypher.
Daddy Dearest has risen having honed tremendous self-control and a useful protective technique, “ghosting,” which renders him invisible to the monsters plaguing human civilization: the nonbearlike Ursa.
These shrieking creatures are introduced in one of those opening expositional heaves that filmmakers use to sketch in the who, what, when, where and why, oh why. In this case, the back story goes, after ruining Earth, humans relocated to Nova Prime, where they wear a lot of white and decorate their homes with flowing sailcloths. It’s a nautical motif that winds though the movie, which was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote the script with Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”) from a story by Mr. Smith. There’s even a nod to “Moby-Dick” shortly before Cypher and Kitai’s spaceship crashes to Earth, throwing them together for the usual and less-so life lessons like: “Root yourself in this present moment. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.”
Those images are few and far between in a movie that loses its way long before Kitai reaches the belching volcano that leads to his inevitable destiny. Mr. Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, are producers on “After Earth,” which suggests that there was no one on the production who could really say no to him. An often affable screen presence, he spends much of the movie in a chair on the spaceship pursing his lips and watering his eyes.
It’s a calamitously one-note, unpersuasive performance that’s a match to that of Jaden, a pretty teenager with jumpy eyebrows whose character remains an insufferable brat. Once upon a time, Hollywood parents gave their children sports cars as gifts. These days, apparently nothing less than a big-screen vanity project will do for Junior.