After Earth (2013)
M. Night Shyamalan
Jaden Smith (Kitai Rage), Will Smith (Cypher Rage), Sophie Okonedo (Faia Rage), Zoe Kravitz (Senshi Rage)
Ecological Disaster (?)
“I’ve heard stories of Earth; a paradise before we destroyed it. The founding of the United Ranger Corps 1000 years ago was a global military effort; an evacuation of Earth. The Rangers would lead the settlement of mankind’s new home; Nova Prime. But we were not alone. The aliens released the Ursa; monsters bred to kill humans. Technically blind, the Ursa sees humans based on the pheromones we secrete when frightened. The literally smell our fear. Humankind was again in danger of extinction and again turned to The Rangers for the answer. And that answer came in the form of the prime commander, Cypher Rage, the original ghost. He’s believed to be so completely free of fear that, to an Ursa, he is invisible. This phenomenon is known as ‘Ghosting’.” – Kitai Rage, opening narration.
I’ve never really cared for M. Night Shyamalan. This isn’t a boast of my superior taste in movies that I saw the man behind the curtain back when he was being called the next Alfred Hitchcock for movies like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. I’ve always just found his movies to be empty affairs with sappy overtones which are overly beholden to a big third act twist. Not revolutionary, I know, but Shyamalan movies have always felt like overlong episodes of the ’80s version of The Twilight Zone. The point is, I disliked his movies even when they were celebrated. Which is why I find it odd that, as public opinion has turned on him in recent decades, I’ve become a reluctant defender of his work. Now there is an irredeemable trilogy in his filmography of Lady in The Water, The Happening (we’ll get to that shitshow whenever I feel like watching it again), and The Last Airbender but the assumption that he has just continued to be awful for forever isn’t true. Case in point: After Earth, a movie which was critcially massacred, but which I was surprised and delighted to find that I rather enjoyed.
After Earth is the story of Kitai (Jaden Smith) and his father Cypher Rage (Will Smith). Cypher is a type of intergalactic soldier called a Ranger who has developed a method of not feeling fear, this ability has become invaluable in the fight against the alien-created monsters which threaten the human race. Since his dad is king badass of the universe, Kitai is more than a few feelings of inadequacy. Contributing to those feelings is the death of Kitai’s older sister at the hands of one of the aforementioned creatures as he cowered in a terrarium so it wouldn’t find him. This has lead to a very strained relationship between the boy and his father, where Kitai deeply overcompensates in a futile attempt to fill his father’s shadow.
Cypher returns home to find that Kitai has failed to become a Ranger because he freezes in the field. Taking pity on his son, Cypher takes him along on a routine exercise when their ship crash lands on the post-human planet Earth. Cypher is horribly injured, the rest of the crew is dead, and the signal beacon they need to be rescued is in another part of the ship 100 kilometers away. Kitai is forced to suit up and head out through the inhospitable terrain, where everything has evolved to kill humans, to get the beacon. If this weren’t troubling enough, one of the creatures that killed Kitai’s sister was onboard the ship and it’s loose on the planet.
The biggest problem with this movie, above all others, is the accents. M. Night has decided that people of 1000 years in the future have affected a unique accent, this is actually a really clever world-building element that sounds great on paper but works horribly in execution. The accent in question is a sort of haughty British mixed with a sort of cultured Southerner accent. It doesn’t sound good coming out of anyone’s mouth but it’s particularly egregious coming from Jaden Smith, who does most of the talking. The kid deserves an award just for being able to do an even mediocre job in a movie where he’s forced to talk like this and act against nothing for 80% of the runtime, but there are definitely shades of Anakin Skywalker in Kitai’s portrayal.
The other problem is the dynamic between father and son. There has been much made about how this entire movie is a parable about fame and the real life Jaden Smith living up to Will Smith’s legacy as a pop culture superstar. After all, how does Jaden beat the movie’s antagonist? By conquering his fear. I get that interpretation and it is dumb but let’s look beyond who these people are in real life and just look at them in the abstract as two actors acting in a movie. The character of Cypher Rage is, by design, basically emotionless. He does have emotions but they’re muted and not well defined this just sucks all the natural charisma out of Will Smith (something that M. Night seems to do to the actors in all his movies). Even the scenes of genuine emotion, including the very touching moment of tenderness at the film’s ending are lost amid a sea of monotonous line deliveries and placid glares. There are times when Smith manages to break through the character’s stone face and show the deeper character beneath, these are often scenes where Kitai is in danger, but the tone is generally off.
The story is fine, it feels like an adaptation of a young adult novel I probably would’ve liked, but I can’t help feeling that this would’ve worked better as a book. The plot of Kitai living up to his father’s reputation would’ve worked better without his father’s participation. The movie does pull the security blanket away from Kitai later in the film but I would rather have seen this with just Jaden Smith alone on a planet as a kind of post-apocalyptic space opera take on Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. On the other side of the coin, the idea of a hostile post-apocalyptic Earth where a group of Rangers crash-land and are picked off one-by-one by the local fauna until Cypher Rage is all that’s left alive and has to master his fear to survive as a sort of hard Sci-Fi Predator is similarly more appealing.
The alien element is especially underdeveloped. We know absolutely nothing about the aliens that released the Ursa and aside from the one brief mention of them in the opening narration they’ve never even alluded to again. The Ursa itself muddles up the entire dynamic. The two key elements at play in this story are Man vs. Nature and Courage vs. Fear. All we know about Earth comes from two snippets of dialogue: Kitai says that we abandoned the Earth 1000 years ago because we destroyed it and Cypher says that every creature on Earth has evolved to kill humans. The Earth appears completely rejuvenated to the point that no evidence of man’s existence is there beyond some old cave paintings so it would seem that the Earth rose up and drove the humans out Long Weekend style.
This should be a movie about Kitai trying to survive on a planet that seems to be trying to murder him but M. Night seems to want to bring out a more eco-friendly message so he introduces a third element in the form of a murderous alien dog. This effectively makes the key element of the story “Man vs. Alien That Represents Fear, Oh and Also He’s On a Scary Dangerous Planet.” There are ways the Ursa could have been incorporated without getting in the way of the big themes: if we don’t want to make the monster an element of nature so as to preserve the film’s half-baked green agenda then simply make the Ursa the descendant of some sort of genetically engineered killing machine bred for war or have it be some sort of mechanical creature that Kitai accidently activates. There are more creative and less cumbersome ways to introduce a sadistic monster that smells fear.
Those issues aside (and I can’t overstate how minor all my critiques are in the grand scheme of the film) After Earth is a very enjoyable movie. The world-building is very interesting and unique. This movie is filled with technology which would net an entire scene worth of exposition in other movies but is her just shown unless it has a significant effect on the plot.
The dynamic between characters is a little shaky and the movie tries to do too many things at once, but the father/son themes are solid. As always, M. Night is a hopeless romantic not afraid to sink to the schmaltziest levels for a theme. But I still have to admit that the ending note where Cypher has the medics stand him on his broken legs so he can gruffly salute his son, only for Kitai to just stomp on the moment by running up and tightly embracing his father is a great moment. I can appreciate schmaltz when it’s used to combat macho hokum.
The universe of After Earth is ripe for further exploration. I don’t think that this is the best story you could tell in this setting or the best story you should tell. After Earth is definitely angling for a younger audience, it’s an adaptation of a popular young adult novel that never actually existed, but in those confines it is a very strong story.
Many critics felt that After Earth was the final nail in the coffin of M. Night Shyamalan’s dying career. I personally see this movie as a new beginning; a bold step in the right direction for a film-maker who is now finally beginning to evolve.
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