"After Earth" is M. Night Shyamalan's best film in years, in part because he is not allowed to assert himself creatively in any noticeable way.
The Oscar-nominated best director of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs," who fell on hard times with "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender," has filled this paint-by-numbers sci-fi palette with whatever star Will Smith, who gets a "story by" credit, thought of.
The result is not only derivative of and beholden to the original "Star Trek" but has the as-told-to quality of a vaguely Scientology-like parable.
It may also be the first in what could become a trend among new Hollywood power brokers: creating movie franchises for their offspring.
Jaden Smith, 14, plays a Wil Wheaton wannabe with daddy issues. While his absentee father, played by Will Smith, has been busy traveling the universe, the son has been trying and failing to measure up to his dad's legacy.
They live on the planet mankind relocated to after destroying Earth, but which also was home to a vicious alien creature that could sense fear in its victims. The only way to defeat them was to transcend fear, something the elder Smith managed to achieve. But his son is haunted by a childhood trauma, and the fear is great in this one.
On a much needed father-son getaway, their ship crashes on old Earth, where predators roam. After his father is injured, young Smith must traverse the planet to recover an emergency beacon in the scattered wreckage, and his slowly dying father uses various technologies to monitor his son from the ship.
While he faces wild animals, what the younger Smith is really confronting are the crippling feelings of inadequacy that have kept him from becoming all that he can be, and which he must conquer when he encounters the vicious alien beast that traveled to Earth with them. But the arbitrary and artificial obstacles the youth faces are like video-game levels, and the effects used to portray them are wielded without imagination or vision.
If the emotionally confused younger Smith channels Wesley Crusher, Wheaton's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" character, the elder Smith mimics the aloof Mr. Spock's wooden detachment and monotone. Too, the mission resembles any number of adventures from the "Star Trek" series that took place on the surface of planets that always looked like Earth. There are even whales reminiscent of "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."
No wonder the result feels like a trek across an already discovered country.