I like a bad movie. I like a bad movie with gumption and nerve. I like a bad movie with the courage of its insane convictions, one that's too much of everything. I like Battlefield Earth, for example. It's the product of a single-minded evangelist, a true believer -- John Travolta, I mean, not L. Ron Hubbard -- and, as such, it is pure. It is also bananas.
I choose Battlefield Earth as my example here because it comes from the same cul-de-sac at the end of Vanity Project Lane in the same gated community as After Earth and because it's a space movie about stuff from space and one man who must triumph over... I forget what... his own negative something or other. Also because it has J.T. as a dreadlocked monster-dude doing a Bette Davis impersonation, which is excellent, the best choice for that character and most entertaining option for us, the slack-jawed audience. It's raw, ruined pleasure watching Battlefield Earth. Then you get to make your friends watch it. Then they hate you. And that's great, too.
This movie, on the other hand, is about nobody's pleasure or deep vision. It is, instead, about positioning two actors in the power structure of the film industry. The older one, producer and shot-caller Will Smith (who effectively turns abused auteur M. Night Shyamalan into a hack-for-hire here), is the very machinery for making this a film that's allowed to open in wide release in the first place, but who on-screen plays a supporting role as a galactic ranger named... here it comes... Cypher Raige. Cypher and son Kitai (Jaden Smith, his character name a Japanese word meaning "hope," because whatever) crash-land on a future Earth, a thousand years into that future to be exact, a future missing its people, a future where hostile animals have rapidly evolved (science schmience) to destroy anything human. Cypher is injured, leaving young, scared Kitai to face his fears and trek across the dangerous wasteland to find a ship-messaging beacon, their only hope for rescue.
As this is happening on-screen and 14-year-old Jaden flies with squirrel-like flaps, battles giant Rodans (then befriends them) and stabs freaky monsters, offscreen there's a parallel story taking place, one that has no choice but to be more fascinating. It's the one about dad using his clout, his proven box office ability over the past two decades, and son reaping the benefits, learning the ropes of movie stardom and taking the lead in the action, as well as his place in the 1% of Young Hollywood. He starred in a hit remake of The Karate Kid, after all. If this one makes a lot of money then his path is set for the time being.
And it might. But it's also a very bad movie. And not the awesome kind. The sad kind.
Almost every on-screen choice, from the strange half-British dialect the Smiths are using (and then mostly discarding) to the excitement-free adventure to the barely there father-son rapport, is a confusing mistake. The regular moments of silence and restraint, which would otherwise be a shockingly welcome element in a big summer action film, and which are meant to convey a serious-minded purpose, only serve to highlight the sad fact that Jaden Smith hasn't become the actor he needs to be to carry along anyone's interest or emotions when there are no horrible special effects swirling around him (all of them, from space junk to wild animals, appear to have been crafted out of the most stressful kind of freelance digital duress).
For bad-movie lovers, bad performances are a comedy lightning rod. But not here. I take no pleasure in writing about it. Instead, I sat in the press screening feeling worry and concern for a young actor who looks and acts lost as he struggles to capture a bit of the magnetism and charisma that should have been his genetic birthright. It's enough to make you start asking questions about child labor laws, the limits of noodly science fiction, the wisdom of Hollywood nepotism and the stifling of a director with his own cracked kind of vision. Shyamalan would have, at least, given us a wacky twist ending and a film critic character for the movie to murder in the third act. Instead we get nothing at all. Don't force this one on your friends. They won't hate you, they'll just yawn. Okay, actually they'll hate you, too.