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Will Smith’s Kid Has the Weight of Worlds on His Shoulders

Will Smith, left, and Jaden Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "After Earth." (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures/MCT)

Will Smith, left, and Jaden Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "After Earth." (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures/MCT)

What do you give the kid who has everything? His own summer action-adventure blockbuster, of course.

That’s exactly what Will Smith has done for his 14-year-old son, Jaden, with After Earth, a sci-fantasy film based on a story idea by Papa Smith and starring father and son — though Dad definitely has the supporting role. Well, it certainly beats a cake and a card, but considering what a well-crafted bore After Earth turns out to be, perhaps not by much.

It’s 1,000 years after Earth has been destroyed by man and abandoned for some far-flung solar system. Smith the elder is Cypher Raige, a stern military commander who may be great at slaying alien beasts on foreign worlds, but has trouble connecting with his son, Kitai (Smith the younger). To the delight of his long-suffering wife (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda ), Cypher agrees to take Kitai on his next mission off-planet for a little bonding time.

But to escape a nasty asteroid storm, their heavily damaged ship ends up in a dusty quadrant of the galaxy where the only planet they can crash land is some nearly uninhabitable relic called Earth. All of the crew dies except for Dad, who has two broken legs, and Kitai, who’s remarkably unscathed.

The wreckage with the tail section of the ship, where there’s a beacon that can be used to call for help, is many kilometers away from Cypher and Kitai. So, it’s up to plucky Kitai to brave the fearsome elements (animals have evolved to prehistoric proportions without man around to knock ‘em down to size), retrieve the beacon, and save himself and dear old Dad. (Let’s not even mention the monstrous creature, the ursa, the ship was transporting that has now escaped.)

It’s a simple, predictable quest story that, if told well, could still be effective. But as directed by M. Night Shyamalan and written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta ( The Book of Eli ), it’s a self-serious monotone of a movie built around a young actor who, though he tries valiantly, can’t yet carry a film on his slender shoulders.

The usually magnetic Will Smith could have injected some energy, but he’s completely passive, reading his lines like an orator and spending most of the movie wounded on his back, watching Kitai on the ship’s monitors that miraculously still work.

Shyamalan has created a film that looks good, the computer-generated beasts are appropriately ferocious, and best of all, it’s not in 3-D. Plus, kudos to production designer Thomas E. Sanders for coming up with a future that substitutes lightly colored fabrics and cloth for the expected metal and chrome. It’s nice to know Pier 1 will survive whatever catastrophe ravages Earth.

Considering the disasters Shyamalan has delivered lately — The Last Airbender being the most recent — After Earth is, at the very least, not an embarrassment. But that may not be enough to turn this exercise in competency into a franchise that will make Jaden a bona fide star and ease his father into early retirement, if that’s what Will was thinking.

Sorry, Dad. Looks like you’re going to have to keep working for awhile. And if you want to give Jaden something special next year, why not just settle for a nice party?