"Danger is very real, but fear is a choice," intones Will Smith's character during the course of the dreary futuristic drama "After Earth."
Timidity, it seems, is a storytelling option.
Director M. Night Shyamalan and Smith, who is a producer and receives story credit, concoct a by-the-numbers survival tale constructed on the flimsiest of science-fiction premises and held together by one worn cliché after another.
We are told at the outset that humans abandoned Earth centuries ago, due to our environmental mishandling of the planet, for a new colony on a planet called Novo Prime. This arid redrock planet filmed in southern Utah, specifically around Moab and Canyonlands National Park has its own problem: Ursas. These ravenous alien beasts hunt by smelling human pheromones. Yes, they can literally smell fear.
Smith's character, Gen. Cypher Raige, has no fear and can move undetected among the blind Ursas in a technique called "ghosting" and kill them. This has made him a fearsome warrior, though he's often cold to his teen son, Kitai (played by Smith's son Jaden), a cadet eager to become a Ranger like his dad.
Father and son take an interstellar flight, which ends tragically when the ship encounters a meteor shower and breaks apart while crash-landing on a quarantined planet. This planet has a harsh atmosphere and, as Cypher tells Kitai, creatures that have evolved to kill humans. This planet is wait for it Earth. (Insert dramatic musical sting here.)
Cypher and Kitai are the only survivors of the crash, and Cypher has two broken legs. There's an emergency beacon in the ship's tail section, but that's about 100 kilometers away. So Kitai must trek across the jungle, avoiding nasty baboons, giant wildcats, massive birds of prey and temperatures that drop below freezing at night. Oh, and the no-longer-dormant Ursa that was aboard the crashed vessel.
Shyamalan continues his decadelong slide after his two great thrillers, "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable." Here, he and co-writer Gary Whitta ("The Book of Eli") pump up the drama with a grating series of flashbacks involving Kitai's sister, Senshi (Zoë Isabella Kravitz), whose death still haunts Kitai and Cypher. Between that and the inflated mythology, which is becoming a more prevalent Shyamalan trademark than his "twist" endings, the story barely has room for the computer-animated wildlife to attack.
And Shyamalan's "twist"? There isn't one. With the Smith family closely guarding the family brand, there's nothing in "After Earth" that threatens to upend the studio's preconceptions of a summer blockbuster.
Will Smith, his son Jaden, and M. Night Shyamalan concoct an utterly predictable science-fiction survival story.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, May 31
Rating • PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images.
Running time • 100 minutes.