There's no form of mass entertainment as seasonal as the Hollywood movie. And there's no season so clearly delineated by Hollywood as summer. The movies are bigger and noisier, and too often they're driven by special effects instead of story, but there's also a shift in audience expectations. There is a general willingness to cut movies a certain amount of slack as long as they deliver on the unspoken promise of worthwhile distraction while audiences cool themselves in the air conditioning. It's a simple transaction, a sort of social contract in which all parties deserve to come out ahead.
So why does it go wrong so consistently?
Sci-fi thriller After Earth is mildly entertaining in a nontaxing, summer movie kind of way. It doesn't really insult your intelligence or adhere openly to strict action-movie formula. But once you get an idea of this too-simple tale's origins, it gets a little harder to indulge. Producer and star Will Smith also gets a "story by" credit here, as he came up with the premise of a son rescuing his father and developed it with a particular person in mind. Smith happened to have a 13-year-old movie star, his son Jaden Smith, living under his roof. A futuristic setting and a steady stream of attack creatures were added to the mix. This was enough to set the giant gears of high-budget moviemaking into motion. Co-writer and director M. Night Shyamalan needed a safe gig after the drubbing he took for The Last Airbender a few years ago, so all the pieces fell into place.
After Earth sets its story a thousand years in the future. Earth has been uninhabitable for almost all of that time due to pollution and climate change. Humans have established a colony on a distant planet, where a brave Cypher Raige (Will Smith) fends off an aggressive alien race called the Skrel that fights through large acid-spitting, insect-like robots known as Ursas. Raige has a troubled son (Jaden Smith) who longs for the approval of his dad. They fly into outer space for some father-son bonding only to crash-land on Earth. Raige's legs are broken so the kid must run the gauntlet of earthbound animals — all of which have evolved into human-killers — to retrieve the distress beacon that fell 100 kilometers away and represents their only chance for rescue. His all-knowing dad guides him via high-tech cameras and such. There's nothing more to the plot.
The most impressive thing about After Earth is how quickly its fragile construction falls apart once you make the mistake of giving it a little thought. Even Darwin-haters know that it takes more than a thousand years for a creature to evolve. And how could animals evolve specifically to kill humans when there have been no humans on the planet? Artistic license is one thing, and bad pseudoscience is another. Those killer robots detect humans by sensing the pheromones we secrete when we're scared — a plot point designed to work with a primary theme about overcoming fears and growing up to be a good warrior. But since Ursas are weapons and not biological creatures, couldn't the Skrel simply have fitted their super-high-tech monsters with cameras? There's more, but you get the idea. At least the movie's not in 3-D. — KEN KORMAN