An odd and mixed-matched 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 starts out depressing, because all he wants to do is please his father (Will Smith, Jaden’s real-life father), a heroic if unfortunately named general, Cypher. An oddly-behaved daddy 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 are also the five courses he can take on any given problem.” These options are attack, flee, avoid, neglect or succumb. Kitai would understandably like to split — 1,000 years after humans abandoned Earth, he and Dad have landed on a now seemingly pristine, healed world teeming with cawing, clawing menace and some cute baby critters. But Cypher is made of sterner, righter, more rational stuff.
The story begins too slowly, beat by predictable beat, after a debris storm downs Kitai and Cypher’s spaceship and they fall to Earth in a smashup that looks like someone decorated the set with wet toilet paper and plastic wrap. There, they trade bitter words, clench their jaws and hold back the tears amid long pauses and inert action scenes, most involving Kitai racing through the dense woods and confronting digitally rendered animals. For the most part it is an uninteresting slog alleviated only by the occasional unintended laugh and moments of visual beauty. Mr. Shyamalan generally torpedoes his movies with overweening self-seriousness. But here and there he also offers up an image — as with a close-up of Kitai’s face dusted with glistening snowflakes — that rises out of the torpor.
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 pouting and watering his eyes.
“After Earth” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Spaceship crash, alien monsters, parental peril. Opens on Friday nationwide. Highlight Hollywood gives the film Two out of a possible Five Stars.